Why the CM has moved from Hindutva to the language of development
Gujarat will soon decide whether to extend its decade-long tryst with the BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Most opinion polls predict that Modi will win a third term. But there are larger issues in this election that go beyond Modi’s persona and his prospects in Gujarat. At stake is nothing less than the future of the principal opposition party in India, the BJP, which is facing a serious ideological and leadership crisis at the national level. What makes the 2012 Gujarat election critical? What implications will it have for the rest of India?
Over the last three elections — in 2002, 2007 and 2012 — Modi has considerably toned down his Hindutva rhetoric and increased his emphasis on the language of economic development. In 2002, he launched his post-Godhra election campaign with the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra (procession for Gujarati pride), in which he invoked Hindu victimhood and raised anti-Muslim slogans.
This communally divisive Hindutva campaign had two, opposite effects. It made Modi a hero in Gujarat and helped the BJP achieve an unprecedented victory in 2002 in the state, with 126 out of 182 seats and 49.85 per cent of the total vote share. But outside Gujarat, it altered Modi’s political image, inviting sanctions against his entry to the US, UK and EU. Modi’s image crisis outside Gujarat coincided with the decline of Hindutva politics nationally, marked by the unexpected defeat of the BJP-led NDA in the 2004 general elections. Hindutva was no longer in vogue at the national level, unlike in the post-Babri mosque demolition era of the 1990s.
Despite his rhetoric against the UPA, Modi’s political makeover from Hindutva to development is a response to the larger story of Indian economic growth. The Gujarat elections in 2007 launched the first Modi makeover campaign to match the changed political agenda in Delhi. Hindutva slogans, which had had a significant impact on Gujarati voters in 2002, were now replaced with slogans about Gujarat’s economic growth and global investment in the state. Development became the central theme, and the subtexts of Gujarati pride and Hindutva were pushed into the background. The 2012 Gujarat election is significant because it extends the Modi makeover campaign by combining development with the sadbhavana (amity) mission, which openly courts Muslims. The campaign claims that the BJP government’s development programme receives universal support.
Gujarat’s high growth rate of 10 per cent is comparable to other state economies, such as Andhra Pradesh (9 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (11 per cent). Modi’s success has been in convincing Gujaratis that he is the sole actor behind Gujarat’s high economic growth. He has strategically mobilised the financial resources and support of a conservative Gujarati diaspora and made a spectacle of Gujarat’s growth, successfully delinking it from the larger story of India’s overall economic rise.
The question is: Why has Modi chosen to highlight development when Hindutva politics has paid him such rich dividends in Gujarat? Many have argued that Modi’s political makeover from Hindutva to development is driven by his need for national and international acceptability, which is crucial if he hopes to become India’s prime minister.
This reading does not capture the entire story. The sadbhavana mission may be a desperate attempt to alter Modi’s communal image outside Gujarat, but he would not have chosen to shift to a politics of development if he was not convinced that it would succeed, first and foremost, in Gujarat. The makeover is not the result of a decline in Hindutva’s appeal in the state, evidenced by the absence of Muslims on the BJP’s list of candidates for the upcoming state election. Rather, it is guided by the calculation that although the Gujarati electorate continues to cheer for Hindutva, it may not be satisfied by Hindutva alone. Modi is acutely aware that Gujarat has an urban population of 43 per cent — one of the largest of any Indian state.
The implications of this election’s outcome will be important not just for Gujarat, but also for India. If the Modi makeover strategy succeeds spectacularly in Gujarat, the BJP may be tempted to use this Gujarat model at the national level and project Modi’s persona as well as formula in Delhi. This will be a crucial game changer for the BJP, which is currently undergoing a crisis of political direction. However, if the Gujarat model of development laced with Hindutva does not succeed as expected, the BJP will find itself in a deeper dilemma. It will be left to grapple with a dual crisis — the failure of the kind of Hinduva evoked by the Babri demolition and the riots of 2002, coupled with the rejection of developmentalist Hindutva.