Narendra Modi is back to being Adolf Hitler again.
That’s the message the Awaaz Network wanted to send out as they projected an image of the Indian Prime Minister on the walls of the Palace of Westminster where the logo of the symbol Om slowly morphed into a swastika. A Hitler comparison is shorthand for evil anywhere in the world but especially effective in London. Coming as it does after the BJP’s Bihar disappointment, it’s easy to see this being spun as the beginning of the end for Narendra Modi, a Battle of Dunkirk moment as it were.
There’s no doubt that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo cannot escape the blame for the party’s performance in Bihar. This election was deliberately turned into a mandate on Narendra Modi by his own party, he was the trump card, and it came up short. “The party collectively wins and the party collectively loses,” said Arun Jaitley. Bihar’s Sushil Modi too absolved the Prime Minister. “It does not happen as an individual. A party is responsible for under performance,” he said.
Of course, if the NDA had pulled off a thumping victory the same leaders would have been rushing to lay the credit at Modi’s door. It would have been all thanks to his rally blitzkrieg and Shah’s wizardry. Instead the voters preferred the old taint of cow fodder scams to the newer blood stains of cow vigilantism. The lesser of two evils, as it were.
But it is facile to conflate Narendra Modi with Adolf Hitler. It was hysterical in 2014 when he was running for election. And it is just lazy scaremongering now as he is about to visit Britain. India in 2015 is not Hitler’s Germany of concentration camps and death chambers and by raising that false bogeyman, some of Modi’s critics undermine their own arguments.
What was in evidence in the Bihar election was far more cunning and insidious. In the 2014 election campaign, after the Muzaffarnagar violence Amit Shah told Jat leaders in Bijnor that Mayawati was trying to win the votes of a “particular community” (varg vishesh) one that had violated the honour of their sisters and daughters. He did not name the community but it was clear what he meant. In the Bihar campaign, Narendra Modi warned his audience that the Mahagatbandhan would reduce quotas for lower caste Hindus and tribes in favour of a “particular community”. He too did not name the community but that arch reference shows clear evidence of a pattern. And it’s a pattern that is being employed knowingly because it yields dividends. Bihar was proof not that it does not work anymore. It just did not work well enough this time around.
While The New York Times’ editorial board thinks the Bihar verdict is sending a message “put an end to the hatemongering” it would be naïve to think this “othering” of one group at the expense of others will end in Indian politics.
It’s not that only the BJP plays this divide and rule votebank politics. But what the Bihar campaign actually revealed was that the genial inclusive Modi who went abroad and was lionized on the world stage is very different from the aggressive Modi on the campaign trail at home who had no problems using the dog whistle to consolidate his votebank.
Modi’s opponents cannot be denied the sweetness of this moment of victory. They have every right to savour it but that does not mean it is all the things that it is being made out to be. The emergence of a new Modi-killer silver bullet (move over Arvind Kejriwal). A triumph over intolerance. Vindication of the AwardWapsi-ers. This election is in danger of turning Laloo Prasad Yadav into the wise old Yoda of Indian politics. If indeed Mohan Bhagwat’s comment about needing to revisit quotas spelled doom for the BJP, it’s hardly a moment for progressive liberal rejoicing.
Now Narendra Modi’s supporters say Modi will be forced to jettison the Hindutva hardliners who are derailing his vikaas message. But that suggests that Modi is being held back, against his will, by an interfering and aggressive RSS. But there’s no evidence Modi himself is not sympathetic to that message because that’s the stock he springs from. He campaigned in 2014 on the track record of development in Gujarat and the promise to remake India in that model.
In Bihar in 2015 he could no longer fall back on Gujarat. He had to defend his year in Delhi and he obviously found too little there to celebrate and decided to go for the low hanging fruits of the culture war instead. It backfired this time but that does not mean it will be abandoned next time. It could actually create its own vicious circle where the more reform efforts get stuck in Parliament, the more tempting it is to fall back on the trappings of culture war – beef, textbooks and the like. Why indeed is Mahesh Sharma, the Minister of Culture so much more in the news these days?
Instead of reading the beginning of the end for Modi in Bihar and deifying Nitish Kumar as the new great liberal hope, it’s worth for all of us to take a deep breath. Rahul Gandhi sees in Bihar the victory of humility over arrogance. But this was not about the arrogance of only an Amit Shah who threatened that if the BJP lost crackers would burst in Pakistan. That reeked of a strategy to make “Modi is India, India is Modi” a reality just as once Congress sycophants had chanted “Indira is India, India is Indira”. Bihar is a setback to that project, not its derailment. Like Amit Shah in that stalled lift in Patna, the BJP's fortunes got stuck while on the way up but nothing suggests they are permanently grounded.
There was plenty of arrogance to go around and not just from Shah and Modi. What about the arrogance of the psephologists who confidently predicted the elections and will do the same next time around? Or the arrogance of the pundits who confidently analysed why the NDA won and the Mahagatbandhan lost only to do a U-turn hours later to coolly explain the exact opposite? Or the arrogance of those of us in the media who wrote the political obituary of Nitish Kumar after he divorced himself from the BJP before the Lok Sabha elections and was crushed by the Modi juggernaut at that time? And now calmly laud his soft-spoken masterful gentlemanly ways. And finally the arrogance of those who would dismiss this verdict as further proof of 'illiterate Biharis' who don’t know what’s good for them.
All of that arrogance was shown up by the voters of Bihar and if all the parties concerned could eat some humble pie, it would be a happier Diwali all around.
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