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Will Modi’s complex themes move the electorate?

Gautam Chikermane’s tweets

Beyond Narendra Modi’s appointment as chairman of the 2014 Lok Sabha Election Campaign Committee at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national executive meeting at Goa on June 9 and the resignation of LK Advani from all positions in the party today, between the resultant questions about whether he’s the Prime Ministerial candidate and criticism of being a polarising figure, and under the radar of analyses that his us this morning lie strong stories, well told but whose impact, in terms of votes, we still need to see.

It is after a very long time that any politician has been able to articulate and politicise complex ideas into something that the mass of India can digest and vote on. Beginning with a sharp one-liner — Congress-mukt Barat ka Nirman, or a creation of a Congress-free India — Modi simplified four big and layered concepts that have a strong possibility of gathering a wider appeal: internal security, foreign policy, demographics and policy freeze. On their own, none of these have any meaning whatsoever to the average citizen; in Modi’s hands, they seem to be coming to life.

On internal security, for instance, Modi said he asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh why Maoist supporters are members of the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council and Planning Commission. How can we deal with violence, he asked, if their leaders are getting support from the government? While making these leaders partners in the political process may help their eventual integration, there is no doubt that Modi’s message — the government is not serious about internal security — which he asked party members to echo across India, is likely to hit home.

Apart from a China circling India in particular and bad relations with all our neighbours in general, Modi delivered a kicker, saying when a small country like Maldives doesn’t listen to us, who will? While foreign policy is a hugely complex issue, with repercussions that go beyond economics, politics or even bilateral relationships with individual countries, the Maldives dig is sure to whet the appetite of jingoist voters.

In a somewhat linear argument, Modi took the issue of policy freeze that few beyond the policymaking space are aware of, all the way to rural India. Farmers, he said, don’t know what to grow, they don’t know if they will get the right prices because policies are changed in the middle of the night. And to whose advantage we come to know from Supreme Court. Again, when you slice and dice the messages for different electorates, rural India, where BJP is relatively weak, could identify with this message. Whether it will run with it or will the UPA’s job-guarantee scheme smother it, remains to be seen.

Then, there is the multifaceted issue of demographics — a young nation, he said, is a great opportunity. But the young need jobs. Of the 10 million jobs that the government promised, 80% are in NDA-governed states, Modi claimed (still to look at the statistics). If jobs don’t materialise, the demographic dividend could soon change to demographic curse. And addressing the urban voters, Modi simplified and pushed this message home: demographics means jobs, period. Else, all you see, he said, is the young getting together at Jantar Mantar in rage. If the government, he said, looks at the youth — 65% of them under 35 years — as a burden, how will it bring change? Sharp, strong, direct youth appeal.

Irrespective of whether Modi takes BJP to the victory mark of 272 Lok Sabha seats in May 2014 (or earlier), this articulation shows a creative aggression that India has not seen since the party’s bijli-sadak-pani (electricity-roads-water) campaign, two elections ago, in 2004. The country’s aspirations have moved beyond roti-kapda-makaan (food-clothes-housing), BJP said. While it captured the imagination of writers and analysts, the slogan couldn’t morph into votes. Today, the boundaries of bijli-sadak-pani are being pushed further, towards UID number, bank account and mobile phone. This is not the first time an electorate looks at the future — it has been an ongoing evolution.

Sloganeering as an art in independent India began with Indira Gandhi’s 1971 campaign, ‘garibi hatao’ (end poverty). That was a simple, relatable, touchable message that anyone could read. But as India grew out of the Congress fold, the next successful idea-led campaign came in 1989, when VP Singh translated the Bofor’s scam to something the average voter could identify with. When he tried to repeat that with the Mandalisation of the country, however, it backfired politically, even as OBCs got their entitlement.

The next vote-capturing tool came from Modi’s mentor-turned-ill LK Advani’s rath yatra that invigorated a deadly form of Hindutva and climaxed with the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, leaving a trail of 2,000 bodies behind. I found this idea as divisive as Singh’s Mandalisation. But what left me stupefied was its ironic appeal — it stood on religious identity that was able to plant and profit from the majority community of Hindus feeling marginalised. How can 80% of the people be politically marginal, I couldn’t understand and still can’t. But it worked.

Even though the taint of Godhra riots in 2002 that left 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead sticks with him, it is heartening to see Modi steer clear of Ayodhya, ushering in the new era, a new aspiration of harmony, the shedding of religious identity as an electoral plank. As a people, we have left Advani’s mandir and Singh’s Mandal behind, though Indira’s poverty continues to remain an issue for the bottom 850 million people who live on less than $2 a day, a measure that means different things for different countries.

Modi’s themes for 2014 — governance, trust, women, economic growth, pride — are forward-looking, on which issues like internal security, foreign policy and demographics ride. Over the next 10 months, or earlier, it would be interesting to see how voters respond to these ideas.

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