Imran Khan should take a page out of Narendra Modi’s book. The Indian Prime Minister (PM) in waiting has overcome the stain of communal violence, accusations of religious fundamentalism and the withering attacks of secular Indians to storm into power after netting the first full majority for any party since the 1984 Indian elections put Rajiv Gandhi in power. The BJP took 284 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha, giving it a simple majority in the lower house. With its closest allies included, that number rises to 340. No party in India has exerted such electoral power in 30 years. This is what a real ‘tsunami’ looks like, the result of numerous tectonic shifts in the bedrock of India’s polity, manifested in a tidal wave of enthusiasm for Modi’s perceived ability to deliver on his promises. The perception is based on 13 years of steady canvassing and image building by Modi, which has absorbed criticisms against him that would have damned many other politicians. Modi is implicated in some of India’s worst communal violence including the attack on the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the massacres that followed it and massacre of Muslims that occurred under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. These are points of concern for Indian Muslims, who feel his party’s Hindutva ideology is focused on vengeance for 1,000 years of Muslim rule in the subcontinent. That Hindutva has found traction among India's historically secular intelligentsia and elite is an indicator of the shift in the Indian national consciousness, now focused on ‘reviving’ past Indian glories and ‘returning’ to what Hindutva ideologues believe was a golden age in India’s history. Ironically, by becoming bogged down in incumbency and dynastic policy, the ousted Congress party lost its forward-looking momentum to the BJP.
Populist dramatics of being a ‘strong’ leader aside, Modi’s campaign shows how Indian electoral politics has changed. Perception is as important as reality. Modi’s brand of corporatist capitalism in Gujarat, which saw eight percent growth almost consistently for ten years, was not exceptional. It was less than Tamil Nadu’s 8.6 percent and Bihar's 15 percent. If any state qualifies as exceptional, it should be Kerala which, despite eschewing a corporate model, boasts 7.9 percent growth over the same period. Except for Bihar, these are states where the BJP or its allies did not sweep the majority of Lok Sabha seats. Bihar presents a snapshot of communal voting, where the Hindu majority unified in reaction to the emergence of a Muslim voting bloc to give the BJP an election victory. This is the kind of split that terrifies Indian Muslims and is cause for their concern. Communal violence has been a part of Indian politics throughout its history since independence, and Hindutva is premised on the idea of communal separateness. But Modi did not score such a large election victory by being dogmatic. He has shown the ability to shape-shift according to the times. He focused on his impoverished background, his lower-caste upbringing, and his 'bachelor' life (that weds him to India) to become likeable. He has a sizeable and professional public relations team blooded in the filmmaking world of Bollywood. It has crafted a narrative that brushes communal violence under the carpet as the exception rather than the norm.
The question remains of how far Modi will go in the natural direction this ideology takes him. Undoubtedly 13 years as chief minister have taught him that the realities of governing are different to one’s ideas and governing a vast and heterogeneous country like India will mean he has to temper his election rhetoric. It is unlikely therefore that Modi will overtly antagonise either India’s sizeable Muslim minority, or its neighbours. Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif's message to him to come and visit was the gracious and friendly thing to do. The PM is hoping that Modi’s pragmatism will outweigh his religious sentiments and given Modi’s past, this may well turn out to be true. The BJP also has a history of engaging with Pakistan more than Congress. Only time will tell whether these outcomes emerge in practice. Modi’s propensity to absorb criticism and change his image is crucial to that future. *
At the Jamil Omar Memorial Lecture in Lahore on Wednesday, March 25th, Akbar Zaidi delivered a ...