History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first saffron leader to become the Prime Minister; for 13 days in 1996, 13 months between 1998 and 1999 and between 1999 and 2004. What propelled him to 7 Race Course Road were BJP’s good electoral performance and the sorry state of affairs in the Opposition. But why was it Vajpayee and not Advani or any other senior BJP leader? Affable Vajpayee’s USP was his “acceptability” across the political spectrum vis-à-vis hardliner Lal Krishna Advani. Vajpayee was graded as the “right man in the wrong party.” After his political eclipse, Advani tried to become a moderate, a bit late though.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, considered a Hindutva hardliner, pipped Advani to become PM in 2014. Now two years down the line, Modi appears to be trying to shed his hardcore image and political commentators have begun asking if Modi is the right man in the wrong party.
In 2004, the BJP lost mainly because of mishandling of the economy and the laughable and inopportune “India Shining” campaign and Vajpayee missed the bus. In 2009, Advani, despite discarding his hardliner image, failed to seize the political opportunity as Manmohan Singh, as head of the UPA government, had become a formidable middle class icon by then.
It was in 2005 that Advani first donned the moderate robe and stunning the political class and the RSS, he described Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah a “secular” leader. A stung Nagpur promptly showed him the door. He was forced to quit as BJP president for making Jinnah secular and after the 2009 defeat, Advani was consigned to the margins even as Modi was allowed to worm his way to the top in 2014.
The clock has since turned half circle. Is it now the turn of Modi to become a moderate? If so, will he meet the fate of Advani in 2019?
Modi, whose image was besmirched in the wake of the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat, was even denied visa by the Americans for over two decades. But he played his cards well and succeeded in an image makeover. He displayed his “moderate” streak last month as he strongly denounced the cow vigilantes for stripping and publicly flogging four dalits who allegedly skinned a dead cow.
And predictably, the hardliners barked; lambasted him for his audacity to dub cow protectors “anti-socials”. Saffron outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha leaders lashed out at Modi saying that he insulted Hindutva. VHP international working president Pravin Togadia questioned as to why the “head of the country” has given a clean chit to “cow butchers” and victimised cow protectors who helped him get elected.
One of them warned Modi of meeting the same fate of Vajpayee if he chose to act against the saffron forces. Hindu Mahasabha president Chandraprakash Kaushik told media persons that Modi is not worthy of being the PM and he would be “sent back just like Vajpayee.” The VHP warned him of suffering heavy poll reverses in the next parliament election saying “you will pay a heavy price for this in 2019” while the RSS maintained a nuanced stand.
Half-heartedly backing the PM, RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi condemned those who in the name of cow protection were trying to disrupt “social harmony”. At the same time, the Sangh disagreed with the PM that 70-80 per cent of cow vigilantes were anti-socials insisting that there were only a “handful” of them. The PM got the message and subsequently made amends trimming the 70-80 per cent down to a “handful” during his Hyderabad speech.
It is surprising that the RSS did not reprimand the VHP and Hindu Mahasabha leaders for deriding the Prime Minister. When media persons sought his response, spokesperson M G Vaidya merely said: “All RSS-inspired organisations are autonomous and are free to express their own assessment and opinion.” The Sangh had selectively used the VHP, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and other outfits to torment Vajpayee when he tried to exceed Nagpur brief.
While, both Vajpayee and Advani paid for their ideological drift, it remains to be seen how Modi marries his development agenda with Nagpur edicts. In the first two years of governance, Modi has successfully negotiated the ideological fault lines trying not to antagonise the RSS brass. Unlike Vajpayee, who, lacking numbers in the Lok Sabha was at the mercy of NDA allies as well as Nagpur, Modi has no such fetters. The BJP has brute majority in the lower House and the government’s honeymoon with India Inc and mainstream media is still intact. That bolsters Modi vis-à-vis his ideological mentors.
Notwithstanding, only time will tell whether Modi is genuinely aspiring to be a moderate leader. The party won decisively in 2014 as he marketed himself as a reformist and BJP as a centrist alternative to the Congress. He created brand “Modituva” or Indutva (Indianness) and sold development instead of Hindutva. After becoming PM, he implemented almost all the key welfare and reform agenda of the UPA including FDI and rooted for continuity in foreign policy.
Yet, in the first two years, (much to the disappointment of the secular, liberal and progressive sections of society) Modi looked the other way when hardliners actively pushed their sectarian agenda. As a result, the PM squandered considerable goodwill and the BJP lost Delhi and Bihar elections. Hardliner image can help only in the short run.
Last few months, Modi appears to be attempting to project his moderate face to win over the liberal and progressive sections. There is, however, a question mark whether he will be able to rein in the hotheads who apparently have the Nagpur backing, or whether his so called temperate countenance is a mask to shroud a suspected match-fixing between the PMO and the RSS.