Nitish Kumar and the leaders of the Janata Dal (United) were so exercised by the nomination of Narendra Modi to the chairmanship of the Bharatiya Janata Partyís election campaign committee, that they threatened to quit the National Democratic Alliance. They declared that only a BJP led by a secular statesman like L.K. Advani was acceptable as an alliance partner.
How the world turns. On December 6, 1992, Lal Krishna Advani would have made an unlikely mascot for a Ďsecularí coalition. The campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, which he stoked and led, had climaxed in the razing of the Babri Masjid by kar sevak hordes in his presence. For years afterwards, Advani and his party made political capital out of that violent Ďachievementí and the NDAís years in office were, in large part, the wages of vandalism. So, when Modi is contrasted with Advani as if Modi were a communal monster and Advani a secular stalwart, and when the daily newspapers you read allow this comparison to pass without comment as if it were an obvious truth, you are entitled to wonder if Indian politics plays out in some alternate dimension to the one in which you usually live.
But Nitish Kumar and his friends arenít wrong: Narendra Modi represents a mutation in majoritarian politics that is, in fact, scarier than Advaniís agenda. The principle difference between Modiís and Advaniís brands of bigotry is this: Advani and Vajpayee wanted the BJP to replace the Congress as Indiaís party of government without anyone noticing, whereas Modi chooses to flaunt the anti-Muslim persona that made him politically potent.
Advani and Vajpayee, struggling against a post-Nehruvian consensus controlled by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, sought political respectability for Hindutva. Hindu nationalism had to be made the principal actor in Indian politics, costumed not in saffron but in republican motley. So even as Advani successfully lampooned the Congressís stock- in-trade pluralism as Ďpseudo- secularismí, he tried to stake the BJPís claim to a venerable republican value by invoking a Ďpositiveí secularism.
The classic example of this strategy was the BJP leadershipís response to the razing of the Babri Masjid. Even as Advani mobilized the kar sevak hordes that brought down the mosque, he denied inciting the destruction in his testimony before the Liberhan Commission. He described the day of the demolition as one of the sadder days in his life. The manner in which the extemporized temple had come into existence, he said, was unfortunate but its reality was irreversible. In this way Advani wanted to take the credit for the makeshift Ram Mandir while avoiding any liability for the illegal razing of the mosque or the violence that followed it.
Vajpayeeís entire prime ministership was premised on the assumption that his distance from the BJPís Ram Mandir vanguard made him more acceptable to coalition partners. Despite Advaniís plaintive protestations of sorrow, he was so identified with the Ram Mandir movement that he couldnít be the face of the coalition government. Cruelly for Advani, despite his critical role in the BJPís electoral success, the rules of republican decorum demanded a cuddlier mascot: Vajpayee.
Advaniís Jinnah epiphany, when he rediscovered the Qaid-e-Azam as a secular statesman on a visit to Karachi in 2005, should be read as an eccentric episode in his ongoing campaign to recast himself as a non-sectarian Ďstatesmaní and the natural successor to Vajpayee.
Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has no interest in reprising Vajpayee. There is no ideological difference between him and Advani in the matter of Hindutva; the difference lies in Modiís willingness to be explicitly majoritarian and his ability to leverage this candour (or brazenness) into political success and popularity.
Modiís Babri Masjid moment came after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002; unlike Advani, he expressed no strategic Ďregretí and in the decade that has passed since the killings, he has doubled down on this unrepentant position. He made Maya Kodnani, recently convicted of instigating the most horrific violence during the 2002 pogrom, a minister in the Gujarat government. At his insistence, Amit Shah, arrested and then released on bail for the kidnapping and murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauserbi, has been given the responsibility for organizing the BJPís general election campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Far from distancing himself from the penumbra of violence that has attended the BJPís communal politics, Modi has worn it like a political halo.
In itself, this would have merely been thuggish posturing, but since Modi backed up this sinister bravado by winning three state elections in Gujarat, success has made this association with violence and the violent not a stigma but a mark of decisiveness and strength, a sign that says, here walks a man who plays politics on his terms. After ten years of increasingly corrupt United Progressive Alliance rule, led by an inert prime minister and his dynastic patrons, Modiís Hindu machismo might well resonate with sections of Indiaís large urban Ďmiddle classí.
Where Advani sought to obscure his majoritarian sins through proforma Ďregretí and various forms of spin on Ďpositiveí secularism, Modiís genius has been to find legitimacy not in the mantras of republican politics but in the Indian businessmanís wholly secular passion for profit. The ideological transformation set in train by liberalization has been the notion that growth is a panacea: it will lift the poor out of poverty, expand the cake so that everyone gets more to share and, more generally, render irrelevant the affirmative action, the quotas, the social engineering that have made the state an interfering, wasteful Leviathan instead of the enabling agent it ought to be.
The reason that Tata and Mittal and Ambani line up to adore Modi is not necessarily because they are communal; itís because Modi has tweaked one of Nehruís nostrums and sold himself as the politician who believes that businesses are the temples of modern India. This is music to entrepreneurial ears and, from there, it is but a step for the tycoon to reconcile himself to the reciprocal notion that the Ram Temple is the unfinished business of modern India.
Modi is a leader that businessmen like doing business with; his short way with Muslims, bleeding hearts and the politically correct becomes a virtue in this context, a sign of Will, a guarantee that, in Modi, business has found the political enforcer who can deliver business opportunity without expensive social unrest. Businessmen, specially the great extractive entrepreneurs of modern India, the men who dig and mine money out of the earth, need powerful politicians who are decisive enough to legally displace inconveniently located humans and popular enough to get away with it. Provincial parties have tried to facilitate the operations of Tata and Vedanta, but Modi, with the BJP in tow, could deliver India.
Advani was right in thinking that communal politics is a dirty business, but his choice of hand-sanitizer was mistaken. Artfully denying responsibility for violent Hindu mobilization, and top-dressing it with a new spin on secularism, didnít help Advani become prime minister. He can be forgiven for being roiled up by the thought that Modiís determination not to back away from the pogrom of 2002 made him politically virile. Modiís success in using business-friendly governance as a kind of secular deodorant must be even more infuriating.
But for those hostile to majoritarian politics in general, Advaniís thwarted ambitions are unimportant. What is important and encouraging is the early recognition by the Biju Janata Dal and the JD(U) that a Modi-led BJP is an exponentially more dangerous and malevolent party. If describing Advani as a secular statesman is the rhetorical whopper Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik must tell to forestall Modi or break the NDA, well, itís a small price to pay.