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Modi’s low politics

The Bharatiya Janata Party has committed a historic blunder by allowing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – a conspiratorial, unelected body with a deeply sectarian and anti-democratic agenda – to dictate the choice of its prime ministerial candidate for the next election. The candidate, unsurprisingly, is India’s most hated political figure, who has blood on his hands, aggression in his veins, and a slavishly pro-corporate agenda in his heart.

What is surprising is the unforgivable exuberance of media stories which reported Narendra Modi’s nomination as if he had already won the election, vindicating the BJP’s claim to rule Hindu-majority India because it’s a Hindu-communal party.

The BJP would like to give the contest a bipolar quasi-‘presidential’ character and exploit Modi’s cultivated ‘strong-leader’ image. This may be overoptimistic. But the BJP could certainly make limited gains – not because Modi has anything positive to offer, but because it can capitalise on its opponents’ mistakes, as recently happened in Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian polity isn’t bipolar. Nor is the BJP in the same league as the Congress in the regional or class/group composition of its base. The Congress, with all its faults, policy elitism and deplorable dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has a significant to strong presence in every province, including the Gangetic belt.

The BJP is mainly confined to western-central India, and has an uncertain relationship with the Gangetic delta, which it penetrated only briefly in the 1990s thanks to the Ayodhya movement. The BJP’s base is at least one-third smaller than the Congress’. In 2009, it won only 116 Lok Sabha seats against the Congress’ 206.

The Congress has ruled India for more than 50 years under different systems – one-party rule, based on an upper-caste-plus-Dalit-Muslim coalition, minority government, and coalition-based politics. The BJP was in power for only six years in the 66 years of independence – never on its own.

Its vote-share difference with the Congress widened from four to 10 percentage points between 2004 and 2009. Traditionally, the Congress would get more than 40 percent of the vote, and win two-thirds of all Lok Sabha seats, barring in the 1977 post-emergency election. More recently, its vote has declined to under 30 percent. But at no point has it fallen to the Jana Sangh-BJP’s traditional 7-to-10 percent, or even to the BJP’s high scores since 1989, which ended one-party rule.

Thus the BJP’s highest-ever vote-share (25.6 percent) still doesn’t match the Congress’s lowest-ever vote (25.8 percent). Unless the BJP can add 7-to-10 percentage-points to its current vote of 18.8 percent, and widen its support-base, it’s difficult to see how it can win the critical mass of seats needed for a coalition government.

This critical mass would be close to 200 seats of the BJP alone, rather than the 180-odd it got in 1998-99 when many more parties were willing to join its National Democratic Alliance. The NDA, which once comprised 23 formations, is now essentially reduced to the BJP+Akali Dal+Shiv Sena.

Unless the NDA attracts more regional parties, it’s extremely unlikely to come to power, Modi or no Modi. As things stand, just six regional parties hold the key to government formation in 2014: Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal(United) and AIADMK.

Of these, only the AIADMK, led by J Jayalalithaa, could join the NDA if the Alliance closes in on power. She flaunts her friendship with Modi, and is India’s only non-Hindutva politician to have welcomed the Babri demolition, and justified the Gujarat pogrom. Modi’s authoritarianism, megalomania, abrasive style, and above all, his irreparably tarnished communal image, will repel other potential allies – as shown by the JD(U)’s expulsion of the BJP from Bihar’s ruling alliance.

Regional parties have steadily gained importance in India and command close to 30 percent of the national vote, compared to just 11 percent in 1984. Their rise has pushed the Congress-BJP’s combined vote below 50 percent – decisively bursting the ‘two-party system’ myth, which is crucial to ‘presidentialising’ the coming election, and pushing Modi’s advantage in a direct contest. But the contest won’t be direct. Given the parliamentary system, the fate of all PM-aspirants will largely hinge on stitching up coalitions.

India’s political system has become increasingly multipolar, with a marked rise in the number of parties and sharper competition between them. The number of parties contesting elections has spurted almost sevenfold from 55 in 1952 to 370 in 2009. The average number of parties represented in the Lok Sabha has risen from 19 between 1952 and 1984, to 39 now. If the different parties’ vote-shares are factored in to produce what political scientists call their ‘effective number’, that index has risen even more sharply, from 1.7 to 6.5.

Modi is thus called upon not just to win more seats for the BJP, but to break the multipolar mould, no less. But winning the 200-plus (perhaps 220-230) seats needed to do this is a tall order for the BJP given its narrow social (primarily upper-caste) and geographical base.

That mould can be broken if Modi polarises politics Uttar Pradesh and Bihar along communal lines – just as the Sangh Parivar did in the late 1980s to early 1990s through the Ram temple movement, which mobilised millions, including sections of the mofussil middle classes and castes.

But there is no temple movement today, and the Parivar’s recent attempts to instigate one have all failed. Yet, Modi, a viciously divisive figure, it might be argued, could successfully polarise politics – not just by repelling Muslims, who form 16-17 percent of the UP-Bihar population, but also by creating an aggressive Hindutva identity, with legitimacy and appeal.

Under today’s circumstances, the second can only happen where communal violence is generated and systematically harnessed to further Hindutva politics. The recent Muzaffarnagar-Shamli violence in western Uttar Pradesh, occurring in the state’s broader context of low-intensity communal clashes in nearly 80 places this year, is a case in point.

A minor incident – in which a youth from one community allegedly made lewd remarks to a girl of another community – was converted by RSS-VHP-BJP rumour-campaigns about ‘love jihad’ (seduction-abduction of Hindu women by Muslims) into a serious Jat-Muslim conflict, in which 40 people were killed and 50,000 displaced.

This wouldn’t have happened if the Akhilesh Yadav government had acted promptly, and enforced bans on caste/community conferences that incited trouble. But the government was perceived as inept, partisan, and indulgent towards violence, which some Samajwadi Party leaders calculated, might help consolidate their Muslims support-base.

The long-term cause for the violence was the breakdown of the Jat-Muslim coalition which Charan Singh built, which has sustained the Rashtriya Lok Dal. But perception of Samajwadi partisanship and Parivar rumour-mongering were the mediatory factors in the Jats’ desertion of the RLD and gravitation towards the BJP.

Whether all this was planned by Amit Shah, Modi’s UP election strategist – sent there not because of his (non-existent) expertise on the state, but his experience in instigating violence – isn’t established. But the point is that the Parivar will cynically foment violence because it gains from it.

After Muzaffarnagar, the secular parties must be on their guard and act with scrupulous fairness and impartiality against communal violence. That, with effective broad-based alliances, holds the key to foiling Modi’s designs and defeating him.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in

Praful Bidwai, "Modi’s low politics," The News. 2013-09-24.
Keywords: Political science , Political process , Political parties , Political issues , Politics-India , Society-India , Mass media , Congress party , Elections , Democracy , Violence , Muslims , Hindus , Politcs , Narendra Modi , Akhilesh Yadav , India , BJP , RSS , RLD