In August last year, I sat down with a journalist friend and played the election numbers game. This friend is the kind of man who has the the number of each state’s Lok Sabha seats by heart and we went through the ‘math’, as the Americans like to call it, to see how close Narendra Modi and the BJP could get to a majority in this year’s elections. Both of us are Gujarati and we both have a special regard for Mr Modi and his brand of politics — the kind of regard alkalines and acids, or mongooses and snakes, have for each other. Try as we did, we couldn’t, even in our worst doomsday scenario, get the Namo-Bhajapa to cross 180. I called this friend recently and we laughed uproariously while remembering this, surrounded as we both now are by people who are — confidently or despondently — proclaiming a minimum of 200 seats for the BJP alone.
There are, of course, several factors that one shouldn’t forget or dismiss. The psepho-boffins have got it spectacularly wrong before, notably in 2004, although then they miscalculated the anti-incumbency kick, while this time they would have to be crazy- wrong in the other direction. Next, the results aren’t out till they are out: 80 days are a long time in politics and, while the Congress could always implode further, all sorts of new and beautiful miscegnations can issue from various political musical beds and come June 2014 the zoo-coliseum of Parliament could be populated by very strange creatures joined at various bodily points. The old adage is also well worth remembering, the one that says massed crowds at meetings do not always translate into votes in the ballot-box. The most important thing, of course, is that there is a whole country out there that’s not too highly affected by the barrage of media; to paraphrase the title of the classic health manual from 1970, someone looking back at these elections might well be tempted to write a book called Where There Was No Facebook. It could be that this time we’ll see criss-cross cleavages that make the middle-America/coastal America, red-blue divide look minor, that we’ll witness a massive split between how urban India and village India vote, the complexity multiplied by the bifurcation between north/central and south/east. It doesn’t take a psepho-boffin or the equivalent of a rocket scientist to predict that these 2014 elections will most likely lead to a right royal mess, a veritable mass Holi of cross-firing political colours, and that the whole post-result circus might even be kind of fun, an acquired taste, Pamplona bull-run, buzkashi kind of fun .
However, let’s push all that aside for a few moments. Let’s just say Narendra Modi makes it to prime minister. Let’s say he not only makes it but makes it with enough BJP occupancy of the treasury benches that his government can’t be held hostage by any coalition partner for the first three or four years of its term. What, then? Speaking at a literary meet recently, Mark Tully was asked about this possibility and his reply was, “I have faith in Indian democracy. India has seen off Mrs Gandhi and India will see off Mr Modi.” No doubt Mr Tully has reasons for his faith, and he may well be right in that eventually Narendra Modi will have to relinquish his power and Indian democracy — in some shape or form — will most likely outlast his spell in Delhi. The question for a lot of us is how much damage will Modi cause before he goes? The sub-question, no less important, is what are the areas in which a Modi administration will cause maximum harm to this society?
To be absolutely clear, these questions do not imply that the UPA government hasn’t caused major harm itself, or that a Modi-driven NDA will always create new problems and set-backs where none has existed before. However, as realists, we should not be afraid to look the possibility (and consequences) of a Namo-Bhajo victory in the eye. For the purpose of this column let’s take a look at just three of these areas.
Area # 1: Relations between communities. There is a real fear among many that Modi’s ascendancy to power will mean enlarged replications across India of the 2002 pogrom against Gujarat’s Muslims. Many of us, though, tend to project it slightly differently. Modi may have gambolled and fattened in the lap of the chaddi-varga, the khakhi-shorts clique of the RSS, but now he has perhaps slipped their bounds. Modi is clever enough to know that the whole world, including important trading partners in the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia, will be watching very carefully as to how he deals with India’s largest minority, and religious minorities in general. The man has enough low cunning not to let any comparable repeat of the post-Godhra massacres take place too soon. In any case, the Hitler comparison falters a bit because, unlike Hitler’s obsession with Jews, Modi’s psychopathy isn’t centred around a hatred of Muslims per se, a) it is centred around anyone, or any group, he sees as an obstacle to his own personal, greater glory, and b) any community or section of society that is useful for scapegoating. Therefore, those who expect a direct frontal attack on Indian Muslims and Muslim institutions may find themselves looking the wrong way. Instead, we should understand that Modi taking possession of the little bungalow on Race Course Road will mean it is brutal open season on any and every marginal group, whether they be tribals, protesting industrial workers, pesky academics and journalists who are deemed ‘lefty’ or ‘anti-national’, people protesting the AFSPA in our northern and eastern border states, any regional leader who Modi sees as having too much power. Furthermore, this time the attacks will not necessarily consist of mobs armed with gas cylinders and phone and address lists, they may be more indirect, though no less vicious for all that. For this, we need to be ready.
Area # 2: Environment, Ecology, Climate Change, and whatever other aliases by which you want to identify the criminal. Unlike the murderously benighted product of baba-log culture, Sanjay Gandhi, Narendra Modi makes no pretence of caring for the environment, not really. In power, Modi will make Veerappa Moily and P. Chidambaram look like tree-hugging greenpeacers. Here, the projection would be the opposite of the one above, here Modi is indeed likely to replicate and enlarge on his Gujarat model, where industry has been given free licence to do what they like with the environment. It’s fuzzy as to how deeply religious Narendra Modi actually is, but in this case he is at one with the American Christian right — God has given us this planet to play with and God will rescue and repair the planet when the time comes. Or not, as may be His Will. The battle to save and protect our forests, our water, our coastline, our traditional, animistic sacred areas will be one the biggest struggles that will mark any Modi administration. All the areas in which vikaasmay Gujarat has continued to spectacularly fail — women’s health, child mortality, nutrition — can also be linked to this. Whether it’s Modi-BJP who come to power or someone else equally insensitive to the disasters that are stalking us, we need to be ready.
Area # 3: Freedom of Speech. Like Dracula is scared of garlic and the cross, like Superman wilts before the mineral krypton, like Duryodhan has a weak spot around his jockey shorts, this is one thing that is, perhaps, the softest part of Narendra Modi’s soft underbelly. It’s simple. The man cannot take criticism, questioning, reasonable accusations or lampooning with even an iota of grace or dignity. If he ever becomes prime minister of India, we will have a man of such immovable self-regard that he has never laughed at himself, forget about letting others laugh at him. We will have a man who has always hated being questioned and done his best to snuff out the very impulse of questioning. In this Modi may be far from alone — it’s a charge that can be fairly levelled at most of this country’s top leaders — but married to all his other shortcomings, it flags up a serious problem for any country aspiring to deepen its democracy. Even if we discount silly comparisons to Weimar Germany and the likely exaggerations from high-ranking members of the media, the agenda is clear: stifle all questioning, corral all debate into areas that are comfortable for ‘saheb’. The assault has been ongoing against local, vernacular journalists and newspapers and now it has been ramped up to target higher profile editors and TV anchors in the urban press and media. Owners of media groups and TV channels have clearly received warnings and the warnings go something like this: we are coming, Mr Modi is coming, and when we are in power we will not forget the smallest of slights. Again, whatever mess the elections throw up, this obscure object of desire, this ‘freedom of speech’ thing is core to survival of any idea of democracy in India and we need to be prepared to fight for it.