Decoding Modi's Victory and Secular Politics
Narendra Modi's repeat landslide victory in Gujarat against the spectacular odds stacked against him - anti-incumbency, the odious hangover of the 2002 riots, an unforgiving Muslim minority, BJP spoilers and a hostile media - has exposed the fragility and speciousness of secular politics practised in the country by those who are quick to seize on the secularism mantra as the sole rallying point.
One of the first reactions from the Left parties after it became clear that Modi has won the Gujarat sweepstakes defying all punters and pundits was that the victory should encourage secular forces to come together to face a resurgent "communal threat". In other words, Modi may have won Gujarat, but in the process he may have unintentionally created a bigger headache for the BJP by forcing the so-called secular parties into a closer embrace than before. Other reactions were on more predictable lines: Congress party spokesperson Veerappa Moily tried to put a brave face on his party's abject defeat, saying success doesn't make a man virtuous.
In other words, no matter how many elections Modi wins, it does not wash away his sins in being an alleged abettor or silent onlooker to the communal holocaust that engulfed Gujarat over five years ago, leaving a sharply polarised polity behind. Modi, basking in this historic win seen by pundits as a sort of watershed in Indian politics, can now retort with glee: "If I am maut ka suadgar (merchant of death, as Congress chief Sonia Gandhi tried to project him), then so are all those people who voted for me." And when he says that, regardless of what you and I think, a majority of Gujaratis are likely to applaud in unison.
True, no electoral victory can extenuate the enormity of what happened in Gujarat in 2002, allegedly with active connivance of or a silent nod from the powers-that-be in Gandhinagar. In all fairness, Gujarat, the land of Gandhi, Patel and Dhirubhai Patel which is now being remoulded as the laboratory of Hindutva, may have moved on, but Modi could have shown at least some sign of remorse or said sorry. But in his strong man image - tough, incorruptible and not easily swayed by compromise - he has done none of these.
Despite all this, the Congress has clearly not been able to tap into the pervasive mood of resentment and outrage among Muslims, whether in Gujarat or in the last elections in Uttar Pradesh, because it sounded apologetic about making riots a central issue in elections, thinking it may play into Modi's hands. Communist leader Sitaram Yechuri pointed this out when he said after Modi's victory that the Congress campaign against communalism was not "concerted enough". Other Left leaders said the Congress did not have the stomach to go the whole hog on the issue of communalism as was evident from the flip-flop on Sonia Gandhi's "maut ka sudagar" remark after Modi justified the encounter death of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.
And for all its tall claims about speaking for "aam admi" (the common man) against chartered members of Shining India, the Congress was spectacularly tardy and inept in forging a coalition of Muslims and backward castes that could have derailed the Modi juggernaut.
The real point about Gujarat verdict 2007 is that it has discredited the politically inconvenient brand of secular politics, as practised by its current votaries who feed on Muslim anxieties of being swamped by an assertive, intolerant majority and regard Muslims as a vote bank to be milked at will. In 1992, the then Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao is said to have played a game of duplicity in the days leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, putting one foot in the Hindutva camp and the other in assuaging the minorities. Rao is said to have been sleeping when the news of the demolition of the mosque broke.
Many political observers have pointed out that the so-called secular leaders have been cynically using secularism as a slogan without showing any real courage in standing up for what they seek to espouse. In their pronouncements on secularism, which essentially amount to branding their chief opponents as communal monsters in a kind of contrived demonology, one can barely see any conviction. Moreover, such a posture reeks of an opportunistic move to perpetuate the Hindu-Muslim divide for purely electoral reasons.
At this point, one may ask what are the lessons of the Gujarat elections for national elections that could be held within the next one and a half years. Although the dynamics of state and national politics differ sharply, there is one enduring message in Modi's victory: it's time for all mainstream political parties to move beyond sloganeering centred around secularism to real all too real issues of development and national identity.
It may sound simplistic, but it's time to demystify punditry and unscramble many an alphabet puzzle - BIMARU, KHAM etcetera - that clutter political discourse and return to the plain sense of things. The point is no matter how high-sounding manifestoes and pamphlets of political parties are and how admirable it is to place the institution above personalities, leadership matters. And leadership means decisiveness, calculation, sincerity and conviction and embodying in words and deeds the idea of India a leader stands for. The idea of India a leader espouses may be a contentious one, but he must believe in it wholly and completely and not regard it as a matter of compromise. Not that Modi embodies all of these ideals; far from it - but his victory proved that despite what cynics say millions of Gujaratis saw him as embodying "Gujarati asmita" and 'vibrant Gujarat.'
In other words, the next ruling dispensation should not be forged on the basis of the fear of Modi - read real or imagined of threats to secularism - but on seeing Modi as just one of the competing ideas in national discourse and making real the promise of India for its one-billion-plus citizens.
(Manish Chand is an assistant editor in IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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