Pappu Nirala wears a new look, appears more energetic and is brimming with hope. The half sleeve kurta (men’s upper garment) is his new fashion statement. After all, this is the top Narendra Modi wears. A few months ago, thirty-year-old Nirala was thinking of quitting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and leading an apolitical life. Now he is once again fully behind the party, which he believes will win 300 of 545 seats in the next parliamentary elections.
The anointment of hardline Hindutva (literally: “Hinduness”) leader and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the face of the right-wing party has brought a new sense of optimism to the organization, which had been in a state of drift after losing two consecutive general elections since 2004.
“It’s the best thing to happen to the BJP and we will scale new heights under the leadership of Modi,” Nirala tells The Diplomat. Recently appointed an office bearer of the Delhi wing of the BJP, he is not alone. BJP cadres in the office and beyond have never been as enthusiastic as they are now.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
If the admiration for the new leader knows no bounds, there is a growing antipathy towards party veteran Lal Krishna Advani, who is popularly believed to oppose the ascension of Modi.
“Advani has done a great disservice to the party. He is playing into the hands of the rival parties,” Santosh, a young BJP cadre who does not take opposition to Modi well, tells The Diplomat. “Time has come for him to retire and rest. He is a liability for the BJP.”
There is irony in the present situation: Advani, the architect of the modern day BJP and Modi’s long-time mentor, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Although the party’s leadership tries to appear deferential, they are not willing to listen to him. Modi has upstaged Advani, rendering the latter effectively persona non grata in the organization.
Who is Modi? Why is he so popular among the BJP? What does he mean for the party and the nation? Why does liberal and secular India see him as a danger to the very idea of the nation?
Modi was infamously embroiled in the communal strife that broke out in the state of Gujarat between Hindus and Muslims in 2002. His administration is popularly held responsible for playing a partisan game that led to the killing of more than 1,000 minority Muslims. The Supreme Court appointed a commission that did not hold him directly responsible. However, several court cases are pending against his ministers and party cadres.
One of his senior ministerial colleagues was found guilty and sent to jail for life. Several human rights reports directly hold Modi responsible for what they call the “Gujarat pogrom.” Until last year the European Union denied him a travel visa, while the U.S. only came around earlier this year.
For the incident in 2002 the Gujarat CM never apologized or tried to correct course. On the contrary, he used the polarization as a ladder to consolidate the Hindu vote in subsequent elections.
During a recently televised debate, senior political journalist and a BJP observer Neena Vyas argued that “Modi represents a hardcore Hindutva leader and that is why he is the favorite of the Hindutva constituency. His prominence in the BJP means marginalization of moderates and a clear consolidation of the right wing agendas under the direct supervision of the RSS.”
The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Organization) is the parent body and ideological fountainhead of all Hindu right-wing organizations around the country. It has a clear agenda to establish a majoritarian society where minorities would be subservient to the Hindutva. Before coming to the BJP, the Gujarat CM was a member of the RSS. This suggests his parent organization played a proactive role in persuading the BJP leadership to front Modi’s name as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography on Modi recently, tells The Diplomat, “For Gujarat’s Chief Minister it's a significant development. He is by far the most charismatic leader and the best bet for the party. He has the capacity to attract not only the party’s support, but also the support from outside and attract new voters.”
Mukhopadhyay adds, “He has the potential to reverse the fate of the right-wing group which has been in decline since 2004. For his pro-liberalization image he is also the favorite of the corporate world.”
Modi’s image as a hardcore Hindutva leader who does not compromise on ideology makes him a favorite of the RSS. In a recent article for the Indian Express, Christophe Jaffrelot writes, “In 2004, the RSS attributed the BJP's electoral defeat to the dilution of its ideology and Advani, as party president, was openly criticised by RSS chief K. Sudarshan.”
Jaffrelot also writes that the BJP became an acceptable party to other allies only when it agreed to shed its core Hindutva ideology. This dilution in the agenda paved the way for the first BJP government in the late-1990s under the grand coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
An expert on right-wing Hindu nationalism, Jaffrelot thinks that the rise of Modi in the BJP limits the growth of the party. Further, he thinks it is uncertain that the BJP will win the elections on its own at a time when coalitions are necessary.
He writes, “But a Modi-led BJP — which has recently lost its only state in the south — will remain far from an absolute majority, even with the backing of the urban dwellers. By the way, the limitations of Imran Khan in Pakistan show that urban voters are not yet in a position to decide the fate of governments in South Asia.If the BJP is to govern again, it will be in a coalition, as Advani keeps telling — and Modi is not a coalition man.”
A similar sentiment is echoed by Sudhir Kulkarni, a former BJP leader and an advisor to the former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his deputy, Advani. He publicly opposed the elevation of Modi and dissociated himself from the party. In a recent article, Kulkarni warns of the consequences of the RSS’s growing grip on the party. He writes, “The BJP's progress has been slow, halting and even riddled with reversals. This is because the unlearning pertains to the socially restrictive Hindutva ideology of the RSS.”
He continues, “Given the people's strong mood for change at present… the BJP has a good chance. For this to happen, however, it has to stop being the political wing of the RSS. It has to learn many more earnest lessons in the classroom of secularism.”
Modi has been trying to change his image in recent years. He has been projecting himself as a messiah of economic development and tries to showcase his state of Gujarat as the model of growth. He has also been trying to reach out to the Muslim minority by organizing rallies and seminars.
However, his image as a hardcore right-wing Hindu leader remains anathema to the idea of liberal and secular India. Further, Muslims fear the worst under his leadership and see him as a threat to their community. Unsurprisingly, some of the nation’s most progressive writers and thinkers have come out very strongly against his anointment.
One India News notes that popular litterateur, U R Ananthamurthy “has said that he will leave India if Narendra Modi becomes its prime minister.” The report goes on to quote Ananthamurthy, who said, “Modi can neither reflect the ancient India nor can he build a model India. I will have no belongingness to India represented by Modi. I, in fact will not like to live in India during that period.”
A similar opinion has been expressed by English writer Amitabh Ghosh, who feels that “the politics of Hindu nationalism is destroying Hindu religion. For someone with that past to occupy the highest position in this land would be, I think, deeply destabilizing.”
India, therefore, stands divided over the name of Modi.
The recent religious riots in Muzaffarnagar in the western part of the state of Uttar Pradesh have been attributed to this political polarization. In its fact-finding report published Tuesday, the Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Policy Analysis (CPA), notes that the “Bharatiya Janata Party has been actively involved in the violence and could emerge — when the embers die down — as the major gainer.”
The majority of the victims in this unprecedented violence have been minority Muslims. Several local BJP leaders have been arrested for perpetuating riots in an area that has never seen this kind of communal strife in the past.
Despite these negative reports, Nirala and other BJP supporters like him are hopeful for the BJP in 2014. The party became a national force in the 1990s, when the Ayodhya movement was launched and called for the building of a Hindu temple at the site of the 16th century Babri Mosque. It sees in Modi a new opportunity to reclaim old ground.
Liberal and secular India would despair at that outcome.