Sadanand Dhume is an internationally acclaimed writer and thinker. It is not without cause. He is a fellow at American Enterprise Institute (AEI), regularly ranked as among the best in the world. Dhume is also a prolific commentator on political and other public issues in the South Asian region. Naturally Dhume would then have a position on Modi and to his credit, it has been a consistent one. That Dhume is on the side of right of center discourse on most public issues, and yet variously opposed to Modi, makes his commentary that much more interesting.
It is for these reasons that I read his latest post in WSJ, “ Don’t Bet on India to Elect the Thatcherite” with some interest. However, after reading the post, I must admit I was left disappointed. The post offers no new insights and completely fails to understand the Modi phenomenon. We will get to there but let us first list out some of the reasons why Dhume thinks that Modi may never make it to the top job and why he may be wrong on each count.
1. Popularity in opinion polls not enough: On the face of it, this seems a compelling argument. India does not have a Presidential form of government and therefore individual popularity of political leaders is circumscribed by the realities of parliamentary system. That BJP is competitive in only 300 odd seats out of a total 543 (Dhume’s hypothesis) would seem to limit its, and thereby Modi’s, appeal goes the argument.
One of the least analyzed Lok Sabha elections, with respect to BJP’s rise, is the 1989 general elections. In the preceding Lok Sabha election, BJP had won a paltry 2 seats. The erstwhile BJS, the earlier avatar of BJP, had never even won half of the 85 seats that BJP won in 1989. These geographical or other limitations did not seem to matter as BJP surged ahead in 1989. So what was different in 1989, as compared to previous elections, that helped BJP take such gigantic leaps? A fresh new idea that BJP had and a compelling general disgust that a corrupt Congress government invoked. Sounds familiar for the script in 2o14?
2. Modi’s electoral appeal as yet untested outside Gujarat: This is an argument that has been made in some form or the other by both serious commentators like Dhume as well as recruits on social media sites like Twitter. This is also an argument that I find that has the least merit. Vajpayee had not been tested electorally at the national level before 1996 either. But that did not prevent BJP from nominating him in 1996. It would seem a facile argument to hold other parallels of Vajpayee and measure Modi on those but never mention this parallel. The fact is Modi has not been on offer to the electorate at any level outside Gujarat ever. The electorate, outside Gujarat, has never been asked to vote for an idea and policy, the implementation of which Modi will preside over. Modi’s campaigns, for a few days in assembly elections, can only supplement the electoral realities of leadership in that respective state and not supplant it. The only reliable metric of Modi’s appeal at the national level at this point of time are the opinion polls and post 2014 election, the national vote.
3. Consensus builder vs. polarizing leader: What is the difference between Vajpayee of 1996 and 1998? He was not a consensus builder in 1996 but suddenly became one in 1998? We can agree that leaders evolve and thus perceptions of their rivals or those not allied with them also evolve. But did Vajpayee evolve so drastically within a span of just 1.5 years? And yet, the position of other political parties barring Congress did change drastically between 1996 and 1998. So what happened? In terms of seats in 1998, BJP won an additional 21 seats over 1996 and an additional 5.3% votes. That changed and nothing else. The other level of argument that TMC or TDP may be coy in allying with Modi for fear of Muslims votes would hold ground if either they were willing to ally with BJP under some other leader (they did not under Advani in 2009) or there was evidence that Muslims are lining up to vote for BJP sans Modi. In fact the contrary may be true, as evidence in Gujarat suggests.
4. Social Media popularity is not same as electoral win: The responsibility placed on social media to translate into electoral outcome is one of the most bizarre arguments to have ever gained traction and disappointingly Dhume uses it too. Why is the same responsibility not placed on Wall Street Journal where Dhume is a regular columnist, or on other media houses? Does NDTV, for example, go out of business because Rahul Gandhi and Congress party flopped spectacularly in UP elections in 2012? Do commentators stop commenting on issues, or the medium where they comment lose validity, if an electoral outcome is not in accordance? Are traditional media houses only about politics and not about a host of other social issues? Does Times of India, for example, measure its worth only by the way it can influence electoral politics and not by the way it comments on other social issues? Why this extra responsibility on the medium of social media and the commentators on the platform?
One of the fundamental mistakes many commentators make is in analyzing how the social media is supposed to work in general and more specifically in case of India. While social media does aggregate the national mood in some senses and therefore a barometer of the way at least the middle class is thinking, there are many other ways in which social media is affecting the political process. The Indian public discourse has hitherto been disproportionately dominated be left of center writers, columnists and thinkers. It is primarily this monopoly that social media challenges since the set that watches English TV channels or reads English newspapers ( the medium where national agenda is many times set) is almost entirely a subset of those active on social media.
This challenge has many consequences. First, most of the public commentators, who ideate on new policies and ideas, have a presence on social media too. In as much as they influence the national discourse, the social media has influence on them. The instant feedback mechanism of social media cannot but influence the influencers. The lies about Gujarat riots of 2002, for example, would not have been so completely exposed and characters who have been awarded national honors made so redundant in absence of this power of social media. It is this power of social media that Modi is utilizing to change the national discourse and his success is self-evident.
Second, the oft-repeated claim is that it is the people in the villages and the policies that are designed for them, like NREGA, that get the votes and not what nonvoting classes in urban centers, exactly the same as seen on social media, think or want. This argument has some basis. However, what is lost sight of is the fact that policies like NREGA, which have ruinous effect on the economy, are first given intellectual legitimacy in the same nonvoting circles. In the era previous to social media, it was much easier to have sanitized debates in national media where policies like NREGA were legitimized. Social media by its very nature does not respect pedigree. That is why, it is much more difficult to build a case for FSB today, despite choreographed interventions by likes of Amartya Sen, than it was for NREGA in 2005-06. A politically salable argument such as FSB is anti farmer was first propounded on social media and later picked up by likes Yashwant Sinha. If socialist policies like these are intellectually delegitimized, the political outcome is bound to be reflected even in the voting preferences of the rural populace.
5. The Idea of Modi: The central premise of Dhume’s column is that past electoral precedent would suggest that Modi may not make it in 2014. Actually precedent here is both useful as well as not enough to analyze the Modi idea. To understand how, it is important to understand the basic difference between electoral appeal of Congress and BJP and the level at which they seek votes.
Congress seeks votes from people at their default level – as Dalits or Brahmins or Patels or Muslims or Christians or Jats or Vokkaligas. That is why someone like Rahul Gandhi can proclaim his Brahmin credentials in one speech while let the world know the caste of Sam Pitroda in another. It is also the reason why a Congress MP in Andhra Pradesh can claim in a public rally that vote of Congress is vote for strengthening Christianity while Congress can simultaneously ally with a party like MIM in the same state. It helps the Congress to keep people at their default divided level and then seek votes.
The BJP on the other hand asks people to vote one level above their default level. So in the nineties, BJP sought votes in the name of Hindutva, which was in essence asking people to rise above their default caste levels. The social engineering that Kalyan Singh fashioned in UP was an example of bridging this gaps between the default levels of people. More recently, at the state assembly level, BJP has asked people to vote for regional pride or governance, again in essence asking people to rise above their default level. Sometimes BJP asks people to vote even two levels above their default level – to vote on issues like national security or foreign policy. When Modi gets rapturous support from young people in Tamil Nadu or Assam, it is not because he is of their same caste or speaks their language, but because he has connected with them at a level above their default level.
The Congress way naturally has a head start and would work in any default election. For the BJP way to work, it needs two things in place – an idea and a credible messenger. Whenever these two things have been place, the BJP has always trumped the Congress, be it at the national level or at the state level. It is only when one or both of these have floundered, that the BJP floundered too, as was the case in 2004 and 2009 national elections.
In the nineties, BJP 1.0 in many senses, the idea was Hindutva and a robust national security policy and the messenger was Vajpayee. BJP 2.0, long in the making, now finally has that idea – governance and a better future of India, and the credible messenger of that idea is Modi. Even precedent, the base on which Dhume builds his argument, suggests that 2014 may be Modi’s election just like 1998 was Vajpayee’s.
However, the idea of Modi transcends mere precedent. Between the late nineties and today, India has undergone a transformation unmatched in any other similar period. The national teledensity stood at below 5% in 1998 and rural teledensity at less than 1%. In January 2013 the figures stood at 73.97% and 40% respectively. This transformation along with similar changes in other forms of connectivity – roads, spread of television, migrant economic activity, etc, is cataclysmic for the way things were done. The word of mouth now spreads at the speed of light and not at the speed of sound. People are no longer satisfied with how things were done – they want them better and sooner. If precedent were to hold, the left front would not have been thrown out in West Bengal and Laloo made a non player in Bihar. If precedent were to hold, Punjab would not have defied history and voted back a government for the first time in 2012. The aspirational politics that is sweeping India sees politicians either thrown out or retained, depending on their delivery levels. This was not the case earlier. It is because of this aspirational politics that the message from Modi, that he has ensured uninterrupted power in Gujarat, has spread to even hinterlands of UP and Bihar. As the Modi election machinery rolls in the coming months, this message will reach every household in many creative ways. As thousands of Muslims from Gujarat get ready to fan out nationally and talk of the development politics and how it has changed their lives for the better, the word of mouth will spread in hitherto nontraditional BJP pockets too. The 2014 election is not going to be judged by historical standards – it may well create a new history.