The Modi Phenomenon: For a Powerful Left Reply

Dipankar Bhattacharya

The Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi were the BJP’s first major test after the party officially anointed Narendra Modi its Prime Ministerial nominee. The BJP has done pretty well in these elections, retaining both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, wresting Rajasthan from the Congress by a massive majority and stopping debutant AAP from walking away with a clear majority in Delhi. While the BJP victories in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have been more emphatic than expected and the party’s results in the other two states are also impressive enough, opinions vary as to how far Narendra Modi can be credited with the results as the party’s star campaigner and declared prime ministerial nominee. It can well be argued that Modi’s high-profile campaigning and aggressive rhetoric hardly had any effect in Chhattisgarh and Delhi. But then Modi supporters can also say that the BJP would have been so much worse off in these two states had Modi not campaigned so extensively.

Leaving it to the psephologists and media analysts to figure out how much of an electoral impact Modi is really generating, we should focus on the political content of the Modi-for-PM campaign and the different dimensions of the Sangh strategy that need to be countered effectively. There is no denying the fact that despite reservations expressed by some senior BJP leaders including Advani, the most experienced leader in the BJP, Modi has emerged as the unquestionable choice of the entire Sangh brigade. Galvanised by Modi’s anointment as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, every Sangh outfit is working overtime to create an atmosphere of communal polarisation and whip up anti-Muslim frenzy. Muzaffarnagar has been the most disturbing upshot of this vicious communal strategy and it has apparently begun yielding rich electoral dividends for the BJP in areas with considerable Jat population as evidenced in the voting pattern in recent elections in Rajasthan and certain rural pockets of Delhi.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, BJP had built up its strategy of communal mobilisation primarily around the issue of Ayodhya. But following the demolition of Babri Masjid by Sangh vandals, the issue of Ram Mandir has perhaps lost much of its earlier emotive appeal. Nowadays the BJP’s communal campaign revolves around more contemporary anti-Muslim prejudices and the US-instigated politics of Islamophobia. The propaganda about ‘love jehad’, fears of influx of immigrants from Bangladesh and infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan, the myth of explosion of Muslim population and demonization of Islam in the name of terrorism – these are the key ingredients of the BJP’s current communal campaign. This is complemented by a relentless propaganda offensive against what the BJP calls ‘pseudo-secularism’, ‘Muslim appeasement’ and ‘vote-bank politics’. The BJP campaign of course also draws a lot of strength from the soft communalism of the Congress and the opportunism practised by many non-BJP parties in the name of secularism. The trivialisation or devaluation of secularism always ends up lending added strength to the BJP’s constant tirade against pseudo-secularism.

As we rightly noted in our 9th Congress, the Modi-as-PM campaign is not limited to the outfits of the Sangh brigade, but is endorsed virtually by the entire corporate sector. The corporate clamour for Modi has been building up for quite some time now; we could hear it grow over successive ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ investor summits. The corporate preference invariably colours the dominant media opinion, and most media houses are treating the 2014 LS elections like one of those Presidential elections in US with Modi already claiming the lion’s share of media attention, with most of his rallies being televised live. The corporates expect a double bonanza from Modi – he is expected to tilt the economic policy balance more decisively in favour of the corporate agenda without any welfare baggage and he is also expected to deal with protests against corporate exemptions and resource-grab with an iron hand.

What lends a wider resonance to this corporate-communal clamour for Modi is the current situation. We have a severe economic crisis affecting large sections of the people and we have a government which is widely rated as the most corrupt government India ever had. The Congress party is passing through a phase of serious decline compounded by an acute crisis of credibility and leadership. This has left the people looking for a government that could deliver and a leadership that could be decisive and the pro-Modi camp is trying to market him as the one-stop answer to all the woes of the people. Sensing that the stocks of the Congress are at an all-time low, Modi has stepped up his rhetorical aggression. He is calling for not just ouster of the Manmohan Singh government but for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India). Time was when the BJP slogan used to be elimination of ‘fear, hunger and corruption’ (bhay-bhookh-bhrashtachar), but Modi paints the Congress as the root of all evil and calls for elimination of the Congress. Obviously he hopes that the loss suffered by the Congress will translate primarily into gains for the BJP.

The regional parties of course occupy considerable political space in India and the BJP still has no electoral presence in a number of states. But the BJP knows that it can do business with most regional parties – it had more than twenty parties as its allies in NDA not so long ago. What Modi is currently doing is reopen the agenda shelved by the NDA in the past – as he did when he called for a debate on Article 370 while addressing a rally in Jammu. The BJP believes that if it can increase its seat tally significantly it can re-attract allies and re-forge a national coalition – and that too on terms closer to the BJP’s own agenda than in the past.

There are a few other important factors that differentiate the current phase of BJP’s ascendance with the previous phase. When Advani and Vajpayee built and led the BJP in the 1980s and 1990s, it was essentially an opposition party. In fact, the BJP tally in Parliament had been reduced to just two in the wake of the ‘nationalist’ outpouring of sympathy for Rajiv Gandhi following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Congress compromise on the Shah Bano judgement coupled with corruption charges against Rajiv Gandhi gave BJP the space to forge ahead and the party used the emotive mythological appeal of Ram – not the benevolent king imagery that Gandhi had used but Ram as warrior – to assert in a big way in the national political arena. Even when it came to power at the centre in 1998 it did not have much grip on state power and was seen primarily as an opposition party coming to power.

But over the last ten years even though the BJP had to sit on opposition benches in Parliament, it remained entrenched in state power in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and also shared power for as long as eight years in another major state like Bihar. In Gujarat, the line of demarcation between the party and the state has been nearly obliterated, and we see Narendra Modi using the state apparatus as a private organisation. The consolidation of the BJP as a party of governance marks a new phase for the party and this consolidation has been achieved in large measure by systematic misuse of state power. The way Modi treated the Gujarat police like a private force during the genocide and the series of fake encounters that followed, the intrusive surveillance and snooping and stalking practised so routinely by his government, and the complete coalescence of the party and the government in executing Modi’s project of self-promotion in the name of honouring the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel are all pointers to a fascistic trend of concentration of all powers in a small coterie around a despotic leader in utter violation of the constitutional provisions of separation of powers and the principles of governmental accountability and autonomy from narrow party control.

Modi is aware that the Sangh has no roots in India’s freedom movement and in the multifarious national awakening beginning with the adivasi revolts and the 1857 war of independence. He is therefore desperately trying to hijack history and use it in the service of the BJP’s game plan to grab power at the Centre. The 150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda became a self-promotional occasion for Modi in Gujarat and now the same is being done with the legacy of Sardar Patel. Modi even tried to play with the legacy of Bhagat Singh but the latter’s glorious record of revolutionary anti-imperialism and powerful advocacy of a progressive nationalism wedded to the strategic goals of secularism, socialism and real freedom for the oppressed, toiling people renders him eminently unsuitable for the BJP. If anything, Bhagat Singh will be a most potent weapon for the Indian youth, working people and democratic intelligentsia in resisting Modi’s brand of corporate-communal fascism.

The icon that Modi believes he is best suited to appropriate is Sardar Patel, thanks to Patel’s strong rightwing views, authoritarian approach, a certain ambivalence on the question of communalism and, of course, his Gujarati origin, and the perceived lack of recognition of Patel in the Congress pantheon dominated by Gandhi, Nehru, and the progeny of the Nehru family. Patel who emerged through the pre-independence peasant movement in Gujarat, Patel who fought against the British colonialists for India’s independence, Patel who as India’s first Home Minister banned the RSS after the assassination of Gandhi, Patel who understood the intricacies of unification of a country of continental dimensions as India, is not exactly made for the Sangh which does not have the historical or ideological wherewithal to comprehend and deal with a country of India’s size, diversity and complexity. But Modi is as desperate to grab pieces of Indian history as the corporates who are eyeing India’s rich natural resources.

The desperation to claim some roots for the BJP in history is matched by the desperation to market Modi as a leader of the oppressed poor. In rally after rally Modi is projecting himself as a humble tea-seller who made it big in politics through sheer hard work. The RSS and all its affiliates are propagating that Modi could be the first leader from extreme backward castes to make it to the Prime Minister’s chair. The man who has all along been brandishing the wealth of Gujarat to mock at the backward and deprived regions of India has suddenly turned into a humble tea-seller and some arrogant leaders of other parties are playing into Modi’s hands by claiming tea-sellers cannot be Prime Ministers. The BJP which is the first preference of India’s feudal forces and corporate circles is trying to wear a pro-poor mask by invoking Modi’s ancient past as a tea-seller.

To build an effective resistance to the BJP’s shrill rhetoric and aggressive Modi-for-PM campaign, we need to understand the underlying points of strength and vulnerability of the BJP’s strategy and the Modi phenomenon. A weak and discredited Congress is clearly no answer to Modi, in fact it is the Congress which is today the biggest source of Modi’s strength. Advocating a grand secular alliance with all kinds of dubious and opportunist forces is walking into the BJP’s trap. Only a powerful espousal of the people’s cause, a bold and consistent battle against corruption, corporate plunder and the acute economic crisis, and for freedom from US-advised policies whether economic or foreign and a determined defence of democracy and justice against the forces and policies of repression can provide a real political challenge to an aggressive BJP. We must realise that Modi is not just an old RSS hand, but he is an essential product of two decades of pro-corporate pro-imperialist policies. Only a spirited battle for a paradigm shift in policies and politics can expose and challenge Modi’s corporate-communal agenda.

The success of AAP in the specific context of Delhi vindicates this strategy. AAP is of course not a party of consistent anti-corporate struggles, the agenda it has outlined so far can be called more a strategy of modernisation of governance and the legal architecture rather than any basic socio-economic transformation. But in the process of party formation and electoral battle, it has already had to broaden its agenda from the one-point Jan Lokpal theme to various civic amenities and basic rights for the urban poor and lower middle classes and also working class issues like regularisation of contract employees. Also while concentrating its campaign against the Congress, AAP has not been particularly vocal against the BJP or its brand of corporate-communal politics, retrograde outlook and repressive rule. But now that AAP has been objectively placed in opposition to the BJP, it cannot afford to adopt an ambivalent position vis-a-vis the BJP.

Historically, the communists constituted the dominant non-Congress stream in India’s freedom struggle and post-Independence politics. If today the BJP emerges as the biggest beneficiary of a Congress decline, it clearly points to a major failure of the Left. More and more voices within the Left now agree to the root cause of this failure – the political derailment of the Left-led government in West Bengal and the opportunist politics of uncritical, tailist alliances with the parties of the ruling classes. The point is to translate this admission into an alternative trajectory in theory and practice which alone can lead to a resurgence of the Left through popular mobilisation of the working people and the democratic intelligentsia. The present situation offers enough potential for a powerful assertion of the revolutionary Left. If the BJP is benefiting from the crisis and the decline of the Congress, if a new formation like AAP can make its presence felt by addressing the popular quest for change and an alternative to the rotten ways of the Congress and the BJP, the revolutionary Left which has been the strongest bulwark of social transformation defying all odds must also draw on the situation for a stronger mobilisation and assertion of the people and more effective ideological-political intervention against the forces of fascist reaction.