Those familiar with elections in West Bengal prior to the Mamata storm of 2011 may not find it too difficult to understand the dynamics of assembly polls in Gujarat since 1995. A dominant party, with deep social and organizational roots, was periodically confronted with patchy challenges that often led to occasional upsets in isolated constituencies. It was also the case that an Opposition that seemed moribund during the non-election years suddenly sprang to life and secured tacit endorsements from a media that had its own scores to settle with the established order. No one doubted the end result but there was furious speculation over the margin of victory. Did a spectacularly high turnout — recall that in many parts of West Bengal the long queues meant that polling had to be extended by many hours — suggest that there was a ‘silent undercurrent’ for change?
There is, however, one significant difference. In West Bengal, Jyoti Basu was the dominant figure from 1977 until his retirement in 2000. For the Left and for many others, he was a patrician-like figure who commanded respect. His rallies were well attended but sober occasions. For all his personal appeal, Basu was no great orator and his staccato sentences, riddled with more common sense than Marxism, were often looked upon with quiet amusement. If there was ‘electricity’ in the air, it was impossible to detect it from a Basu rally. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was a machine that worked with quiet efficiency.
To really understand an election in Gujarat, it is obligatory to attend an election rally addressed by Narendra Modi. I have been to umpteen meetings addressed by Gujarat’s longest-serving chief minister but his election rallies are special.
In 2002, when the riots and the so-called communal question dominated the agenda, I saw the Modi phenomenon at work for the first time. It was late in the evening and the location was a crossroad deep inside Dariapur, an area in Ahmedabad that had become infamous since the 1980s for unending Hindu-Muslim clashes. One lane from the chowk led to a Muslim locality and the others to Hindu-dominated areas where, it could well be said, the votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party were weighed rather than counted.
It was a star-studded evening. First L.K. Advani would speak and be followed by Modi. As usually happens, the timings went a bit awry. Advani had barely spoken for five minutes when he was silenced by a roar, originating from the rear and then overwhelming the entire crowd like a Mexican wave. Modi had arrived and the crowd reacted with absolute frenzy. Discretion getting the better of hierarchy, Advani took the message, ended his speech abruptly and departed. The audience had made it clear this was Modi’s election.
I witnessed a repeat performance in 2007 at a more middle-class venue in the Sabarmati constituency, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Crushed by a human wave that surged forward to get a better view and wave to a man who had been declared “Lion of Gujarat”, it was easy to forget that this was an election rally and not a rock concert. The absence of music was duly compensated for by the audience’s gleeful anticipation of Modi’s one-liners.
In 2002, they used to wait for his ‘Mian Musharraf’ lines; this election, and in spite of a voice that grew hoarse in the final days of the campaign, the familiar mix of boisterous youth and middle-aged women who occupied the stall seats eagerly awaited the mention of ‘Madam Sonia ben’ and ‘Rahul baba’. At the meeting in a working-class locality in old Ahmedabad, it didn’t really matter what Modi was taunting the Congress president and the heir apparent with. What was important was that Modi was on the offensive and at his sarcastic best.
Translated versions of his Gujarati speeches often drag Modi into controversy. They are so totally different from the deferential idiom of pol-speak in Hindi. In Gujarat, however, the popular reception to his flamboyant irreverence, often laced with a touch of self-deprecation, is rapturous. In everyday life Gujaratis may be abstemious, even a bit austere, but their self-expression (or so my Gujarati friends inform me) is often biting, without being bawdy. Modi has mastered the art of penetrating the heart of the Gujarati. He has his finger firmly on the pulse of their concerns, their aspirations and even their prejudices.
In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, Modi was painted by India’s uber secularists as an ugly, fringe phenomenon born out of the basest of Hindu prejudices. By 2007, the obnoxious Hindu had been modified into a disagreeable Gujarati who, as Ashis Nandy once suggested, also reflected the ugly side of its middle classes. And in 2012, he is being pilloried for presenting a flawed development as the national alternative.
That Modi remains a controversial politician is undeniable. But what is significant is how much the goalposts have shifted and the remarkable extent to which Modi has entered the mainstream discourse — not for his lapses in 2002 but for his achievements in the past decade. In spite of all the rhetorical flourishes that characterize every time the voters are asked to choose, the 2012 election was really a test of bread-and-butter issues. Had the development process in Gujarat been utterly skewed and left the so-called aam admi untouched, it is doubtful that Modi would have been re-elected in an election where voter turnout touched a 70 per cent high. The absence of any focused anti-incumbency would suggest that the indictment of the Gujarat model did not correspond to people’s lived experiences. In presiding over high economic growth and the improvement in the quality of life, Modi could be said to have delivered. To those who have long argued that a high growth strategy centred on infrastructure, capacity building and state efficiency is a certain election loser — witness the examples of Vajpayee, Chandrababu Naidu and even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee — Modi is proof that the opposite also holds good. Perhaps Manmohan Singh should take heart.
The question that now confronts the political establishment of India is stark: can Modi and his model be posited as the path for India? There are no easy, pre-determined answers. Nor is this the most appropriate moment to speculate on whether or not Modi will be among the choices in the next general election. As Harold Macmillan famously said, “events” can often unsettle calculations. Yet, some larger conclusions from Thursday’s election results are warranted.
It is clear that what has derisively been called the ‘Modi cult’ is no longer confined to one mid-sized state of western India, it has infected the rank-and-file of the BJP and a sizable section of the middle classes yearning for high growth, purposeful leadership and integrity in public life. Much more needs to be done but Modi, it would seem, has quietly reinvented himself.
Whether this push from below is sufficient to catapult Modi to the national stage is now the big question. India, unfortunately, doesn’t have a system of primaries to determine the leadership question in political parties. Yet, the Gujarat election has come closest to settling the issue for the BJP. The party would be foolish to not heed the message.
‘Prime Minister Modi’ is still a distant dream. But if the momentum generated by his political victory in Gujarat gathers pace, India could yet witness the unravelling of politics as we know it. At every stage since 2002, the bar on assessing Modi has been raised. Each time Modi has both met the challenge and readied himself for greater heights.