Venkatesh K
Should the Indian Right look beyond Modi?
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

A fair and neutral evaluation of the UP election would conclude that SP walked away with honors and BSP finished a honorable runner-up. Without an iota of doubt, Gadkari-led BJP and Rahul-led Congress were thoroughly decimated and to identify which of the two national party suffered from greater electoral reverse is a matter of meaningless academic argument.

There is a silent chill going down the spines of the mansabdars of Congress party. They’ve discovered that the heir-apparent is actually Muhammad Shah Rangeela rather than the Alamgir they fervently hoped for.  Similarly, the “below the radar” strategy envisaged and so brilliantly executed by Gadkari and his handpicked masterminds meant that the BJP hardly registered a blip on the electoral radar of UP.

BJP’s defeat in UP expectedely renewed the debate on party’s continued leadership woes. Some time back, Shri Swapan Dasgupta, an astute commentator that he is, had written “It’s more or less NaMo”. Most of the Indian Right, has too come to the same conclusion. With the recent TIME cover(age) of  Shri NarendraModi, it’s also dawning even among the intellectual classes that his time may have finally arrived. Now, we see an almost desperate push among the supporters to force BJP to anoint Modi as the candidate for top job in 2014. There is nothing wrong with this at all. It’s indeed a welcome move if BJP puts up Modi’s name for the leadership position. After all, he has an enviable record of governance in Gujarat. Probably, he is the only BJP politician after the Vajpayee-Advani duo to have pan Indian name-recognition and crowd-pulling power across the nation.

Battle of Panipat  Redux?

2014 general elections is increasingly being viewed as this country’s last chance to redeem its promise. If we lose this chance, as a nation we might be condemned again to servile existence and perhaps even lose the surviving essence of our civilization. In the preceding centuries, a recurrent theme of Indian history is often a decisive battle fought between opposing forces for control of Delhi in the fields of Panipat. The coming general election might well be the Battle of Panipat of this century. Unfortunately for nationalistic Indians, this is not just a grand analogy but contains many embedded deep historical truths. The battle fields of Panipat have important lessons for all of us interested in the fate of India.

In the November of 1556, Hemu Vikramaditya was fully confident that he would rout the forces of Akbar and Bairam Khan. He had never lost a battle till then. He had declared himself emperor a few days earlier and clearly there was no leadership challenge to him. As a soldier’s general, he led from the front. But the battle was not decided by brilliant strategy or conspicuous bravery. It just took a stray arrow to blind Hemu and the wounded warrior slumped on his elephant mount. His army simply melted away after that. There was no one ready to take over the command. In retrospect, the lack of leadership challenge meant that there was neither leadership nor any challenge left, once he fell.

Shri Modi is almost an ‘Avatarpurush’ protected by divine powers according to his legion of fans. Considering that he has survived a decade of campaign of calumny and vicious vilification by his globally entrenched and networked detractors, it does not seem like a huge exaggeration. However, stray arrows don’t announce their arrival in advance. In the treacherous world of Indian politics, there are too many hidden landmines that unfortunately seem to target the best. I actually don’t even want to speculate on the eventualities that might affect Modi’s chances. That is for his detractors to do. However, if the Indian Right decides to pin its entire future on the shoulders one man ,even if it is NarendraModi, we’re heading into another battle of Panipat.

Dangers of Messiahfication

Why should a single individual’s fate determine the future polity of this country?  There is no need to put all the eggs in the NaMo basket, no matter how much we like it. The antagonistic forces know it well. No wonder they concentrate so much effort on the fix-Modi campaign. It’s in Indian Right’s interest to force them to dilute their efforts and blunt their attack. Even if, heaven forbid, they succeed, it should not be a death blow to the movement to deliver governance based on dharma, nationalism and free-markets.

There is another reason why the messiahfication of Modi so contemptible and sometimes downright silly. To a significant extent, there has been a buildup of personality cult around a few centers in the Indian right. This was never the case earlier. Even the cult around Atalji was a post-PMship phenomenon largely aided by a section of establishment media. The Indian Right and especially Sangh Parivar prided itself on being free of this deadly syndrome. The successive electoral defeats in 2 general elections against a weak UPA coalition have demoralized the BJP-right support base. Hence, we see these demoralized sections that comprises even the intellectuals organizing themselves into fan-armies of either the Gir-Lion or the Swamy-Leon. Building a personality cult militates against the very principles of what the right seeks in 1st place. Personality cults of all sorts are harmful for 2 reasons. In the 1st<> case, it blinds our senses against the impending disaster. NDA did sincerely believe that Vajpayee’s personal popularity would see it through to the next term. In the 2nd case, the hubris it builds in the leader and/or his supporters is not in the nation’s interest. We are still paying for the cults built around the Great-Grand-Daddy and Grand-Mommy. They literally hollowed into the moral backbone of the nation and decimated a once great and democratic party. Should the BJP fall into the same trap? The only surefire way to avoid personality-cults is to have more than enough personalities to begin with.

Can Modi be a coalition builder?

Winning the mandate and putting together a shaky coalition is just beginning of the job. Running a successful coalition that manages to deliver on policy and governance is a herculean task. I confess that I admire the clinical efficiency and the sense of timing Modi has displayed in dealing with habitual dissenters and opponents within the Gujarat BJP. I sometimes wish a certain ex-CM of my home state (Karnataka) had at least an iota of that skill and decisiveness. There is no doubt that Modi has considerable political skills along with ruthlessness of the right kind. However, I doubt whether the politics at national level is going to turn completely bipolar anytime soon. We are set for coalition politics at the national level for a decade or more.Most allies seem to have no issues getting onto the NaMo bandwagon but the Nitish-Modi standoff is well known. If Sushil Modi were projected as a PM aspirant it would not only generate an alliance friendly alternative but also prick the Nitish balloon at the same time.

 Modi and Parivar’s internal dynamics

But, contrary to popular perception, it is not dealing with an ally that is going to be the biggest problem for the leader of a future BJP-led government. The internal dynamics within the party and the extended parivar are going to be a far tougher battle. I’m afraid that Modi’s personality traits are not necessarily best suited for this tough job. Generally, the most productive phases in Indian democracy have been stages when 2 strong but different leaders worked together despite differences in a single government. I am specifically referring to Nehru-Patel and Advani-Vajpayee duo combinations. Undoubtedly, there was conflict but they managed to somehow evolve a working relationship. An equally strong and competent leader acts as suitable counterweight in the government. That brings overall stability to decision making. It also prevents unnecessary speculation about succession planning in any emergency.If Shri Modi were to head a BJP-led government, will he accept another leader within BJP in the almost-equal position? The answer to this question at present is open to speculation. There is nothing in the past record that suggests an affirmative answer and Gujarat CM has larger than life image.However, individuals do change over time and the benefit of doubt should not be denied on that account. But should we not find people with perhaps better overall acceptability that can fit the bill?

Age and Modi

Narendra Modi is going to be 64 years old in 2014. That is not old at all by the geriatric standards of Indian politics. But, compare it with the rest of the democratic world and suddenly the comparison looks distinctly unflattering. The dynasty baba-log and their camp followers in mainstream media will milk this too for what it is worth. For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s assume the BJP misses the bus again in 2014. In such a case Modi will be nearly 70 years old in the subsequent elections. India needs to decisively move away from present geriatric mode of having 75+ year old leaders. BJP needs to set an example to other parties. Our own tradition of Vanaprastha exists for this specific reason. After all, the Sarsanghchalaks of RSS have set the trend by retiring voluntarily and selecting younger people to the top job. We need serious aspirants for PM post to be ideally in 50-55 year range. That gives them potentially 15-20 years in active politics with 1 or 2 shots at the top job. Shri Modi is undoubtedly fitter and healthier than many men junior to him by decades. However, age has a nasty habit of catching up with people suddenly one day.

Acceptance outside Gujarat

There is one more reason due to which the BJP needs to strongly look at alternatives and that is the direct result of actions of Narendrabhai himself. The easiest way to settle the leadership debate is to demonstrate vote-catching power across the states. After Vajpayee, the BJP is struggling to find one. Modi had a golden opportunity to perhaps campaign inat least a few swingconstituencies in UP. If it had worked, half of the BJP MLAs in UP would have been in his debt. If it hadn’t he would be no worse off. If Modi can indeed influence the votes for BJP outside Gujarat, he needs to prove it in campaign after campaign. For all her faults, Uma Bharathi has won elections in 2 of the biggest Hindi speaking states. Based only on record, she has a better claim to the national stage.

Am I advocating abandoning NaMo? No. That would cede the ground to the discredited Delhi cabal of BJP who have no base on their own. They are the very reason the cadre across the country feel directionless and dispirited. Regardless of who else is in the fray, Narendra Modi will remain one of the strongest claimants for the leadership of BJP and the right in general. However, it is in the nation interest, that the party and its supporters look beyond Modi too. It is not just desirable but actually necessary since there are sound underlying reasons for doing so.