Modi, with his near contemptuous disdain for minorities, together with his strenuous efforts to build a personality cult, has more or less ruled himself out of the game. Can a softer narrative rehabilitate him?

The Gujarat electorate has thrown up a conundrum for India that raises deep philosophical questions about the future of its polity. Firstly, electoral compulsions have once again prevailed over the rule of law. The difference between brute mobocracy and a fair democracy is the rule of law. Secondly, Gujarat has again tacitly approved a rather contemptuous message to its minorities that says you are irrelevant. This has implications for national politics. For these reasons alone Gujarat’s political choices need careful scrutiny.

It may be useful to recall BJP’s general electoral strategy of polarisation along the communal fault-line to generate a larger share of votes for it. I am by no means implying the Congress strategy of polarisation along caste lines is less harmful than BJP’s polarisation along communal lines. Both are terribly debilitating for India. My effort here is more geared to showing why Gujarat cannot be scaled up to India.

For the purposes of a crude but simple model that helps explain the strategy of polarisation, consider the total electorate to be made up of four blocks. These are Upper Castes [UC], Middle Castes [MC], Lower Castes [LC] and Muslims [M]. The size of these blocks varies from State to State, district to district, town to town. Furthermore, there is a significant difference in the size and composition between urban and rural areas. Muslims in particular cluster around towns and cities and shun rural areas unless they happen to have a significant majority themselves. For the purposes of understanding the dynamics, assume UC is 20 percent, MC is 40 percent, LC is 20 percent and M is 20 percent. This roughly corresponds to the caste composition of the Hindus that one observes in practice.

An increase in the degree of polarisation works differently on the four blocks. A working political assumption is that UCs tend to polarise favourably towards the BJP, LCs and Muslims against. MCs are where the real battleground lies. Therefore the real gain or loss from an increased degree of polarisation comes from the MCs. The other groups are more or less committed in their preferences.

The above configuration, the very back of the envelope, gives the BJP roughly 30 percent of the vote without any polarisation. With maximum polarisation, the vote percentage goes to about 40 to 45 percent. Thus, the real battle for the BJP is to find an emotive issue that polarises the MC into voting along communal lines. It helps the BJP to have MC leadership at the State level to gain some extra leverage. Ever since the Ayodhya affair, the BJP has pursued the same electoral strategy without any change.

In Gujarat, Muslims constitute no more than nine percent of the population against a national average closer to 18-20 percent. Other minorities in Gujarat are insignificant at less than one percent. This changes the composition of the Gujarat electorate to the BJP’s natural advantage. Without any polarisation, the BJP comes in with a 40 percent share of the vote compared to others (including Congress) at something close to 30 percent. No wonder, therefore, Gujarat has traditionally been a BJP stronghold. Note issues and electorate’s mood changes from election to election. What we are taking of is general tendencies. The fact is the BJP does not need polarisation in Gujarat to win. It needs that outside Gujarat. Therefore, Gujarat is a model to be sold to the electorate outside Gujarat — preferably in a different garb — more development rather than naked polarisation.

The basic arithmetic changes drastically once you step outside Gujarat. Firstly, the Muslim vote aligned against the BJP jumps to 20 percent. The degree of polarisation required to offset that is much higher because the BJP needs to get more than 50 percent of the MC votes in order to win as opposed to 25 percent in the case of Gujarat. Moreover, extreme polarisation generates a backlash in the lost UC vote share. Under such circumstances, the BJP is under a compulsion to find a MC leader well disposed to its ideology, who can pull in the additional votes necessary to put together a winning combination. As we see from history, the BJP has done well in States where MC leaders lead it. Modi himself is one such leader, which sort of seals the arithmetic in Gujarat for the BJP. The same play was evident in UP, Karnataka and the BJP alliance with Nitish Kumar in Bihar. When the MCs have their own leader of stature like Mulayam or Nitish, the BJP just cannot find the winning combination on its own, no matter what the degree of polarisation its ideologues drum up.

With Gujarat not being scalable to the rest of India, what options does the BJP have to capture power?

If the BJP is to be the main player in a winning coalition, it needs a degree of emotive polarisation. However, that by itself is useless without an alliance with the other MC leaders. That is the basic reason why we find ourselves in an era of coalition politics. The BJP just cannot win on its own steam given the rival Congress strategy of polarisation along caste lines. India is locked into divisive politics of one sort or the other.

If the Gujarat model is not scalable, what are Modi’s chances of leading the assault on Delhi? Nitish Kumar and other MC leaders like him will find Modi’s creation of a cult around himself too hard to swallow. Furthermore, aligning with Modi’s hard Hindutva will lose them the critical Muslim vote on which they depend to keep the Congress at bay. Given Congress’ strategy of coalition building, the BJP will have to find leaders acceptable to its potential coalition partners in order to win. And Modi, with his near contemptuous disdain for minorities, together with his strenuous efforts to build a personality cult, has more or less ruled himself out of the game.

Can a softer, more balanced narrative rehabilitate Modi after his power struggle within the Sangh Pariwar is settled in his favour?

Modi faces stiff competition from a gaggle of BJP national level leaders but few of them have his electoral reach or access to corporate war chests. The latter is critical in the BJP because central leaders have no separate access to resources that are needed to reward corporate generosity. Their funding comes entirely from regional satraps like Modi.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the Brahmins of Nagpur are ready to surrender their vast cultural organisation to a MC leader like Modi. Note that the BJP has no organisational muscle of its own. It depends more or less entirely on the cultural reach of the RSS and its cadres to pull in the voters. The RSS is the political party of cadres and BJP the political party of leaders. The latter is nothing without the former. Modi has supplanted BJP/RSS cadres with his own people in Gujarat. Will the Brahmins of Nagpur risk losing their only crown jewel to a relative outsider? This is not a question to be taken lightly. Whatever be its merits or demerits, the RSS remains one of the most potent political organisations in India.

Much of Modi’s obduracy towards minorities is predicated on his need to win the battle for supremacy within the Sangh Pariwar. As a shrewd politician with an eye on Delhi’s throne, he would have made the appropriate noises of remorse and regret for 2002 long ere this but for the need to keep his firebrand supporters by his side. Modi needs to win over either the RSS or his rivals in Delhi to emerge as the undisputed leader within the Sangh Pariwar. Without one or the other, he cannot win. This triangular contest is what constrains his emergence as a national leader in his own right.

Modi has various other options open to him, one of which is to be less aggressive and perhaps join the collegium of the BJP leaders in Delhi, become a team player and bide his time. Provided he mellows, the BJP could then use him as the polarising factor to lead the Hindutva charge for power. If Modi were to consent to play Advani to a more acceptable BJP leader like Vajpayee, he would give BJP the chance it needs to build a winning coalition with MC leaders.

Is Modi really larger than his image? If you find Modi retaining his CM’s post in Gujarat and consenting to work for the greater good of his party, you will have your answer.

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