Jun 28, 2008

The Winning Formula

Gujarat and West Bengal are ideologically and geographically poles apart, but their politics has something in common. Read carefully between the red and saffron graffiti lines and a similar subtext emerges. Both these governments claim that the Centre, that represents India, is doggedly undermining them though they do all the hard work. This hidden message has helped Modi and the Left Front beat the anti-incumbency factor, while all other political formations have been felled by it. Fortunately for them, no other party in their respective backyards can match them in expressing this form of reluctant sub-nationalism. This is the key to their success: not cadre discipline or Hindutva and development. Jyoti Basu gave the CPM a distinctive appeal when from the early 1960s he fused leftism with an anti-Centre posture. According to the Kolkata communists, even the Green Revolution was aimed to benefit hardy wheat eaters in the north with muscular hybrid varieties, while the east continued to harvest its lowly rice. The joke is that when Jawaharlal Nehru's ashes were doing the rounds in various states and eventually reached Calcutta, it was accorded the deepest respect. But Basu, the sceptic, lifted the top of the urn, inspected the ashes inside, then turned to his people and triumphantly announced: "I knew it; we got less." Recently, Modi made a public declaration that Gujaratis should consider not paying any central taxes as all the money Delhi soaks in from this state goes elsewhere. According to Modi, Gujarat contributes Rs 40,000 crore but gets only 2.5 per cent of it. Obviously there are bad guys out there at the Centre, who are using this money, fiddling with the books and fattening their purses. Much of Gujarat's development began well before Modi became chief minister in 2001. Gujarat ranked third among the top 15 Indian states in terms of growth and industrial output. But, as some argue, it may have slipped to the fourth position after Modi took over. The real per capita income growth in Gujarat has reportedly gone down as well between 1994-95 and 2005-06. Out of 17 sub-sectors that measure growth performance, Gujarat has done well only in eight. Its gender parity index in terms of school attendance at the higher primary level shows that it is lower than most other states. For every 100 boys in school in that grade there are only about 81 girls. Not a very comforting human development statistic. Unlike Gujarat, the Left Front inherited an underdeveloped economy in West Bengal, and they have since done their bit to deepen it. There are now fewer teachers per school and more patients per primary health centre even after three decades of "communist" rule in this state. In fact, in terms of education, health and the electrification of households, West Bengal is in the back of the class, rubbing shoulders with Bihar, UP and Mizoram. Yet the Left Front keeps getting elected. To argue that Hindutva boosted Modi's appeal in Gujarat would then prompt the question why it did not help the BJP at the national level. The melodrama at Ayodhya and the shock waves of the Mumbai blasts should have seen BJP through several rounds of elections. In fact, when these events happened many political fence-sitters did some futures trading and opted for BJP stocks only to be disappointed at their short-lived buoyancy. Modi could have stumbled upon his winning formula quite by chance. Initially he only wanted to win an election and planned the carnage in exactly those areas where BJP was weak. As the election campaign progressed, so did criticisms against his handling of the killings grow nationwide. It was somewhere between whistle-stops that he cleverly turned around the attacks against him and made them sound like an assault on Gujarati pride. This was a masterstroke. He wore his hurt on his sleeve like a badge of honour and launched into a counter-attack. All of Gujarat, he said, was being insulted by India, and should the people of this state stand for it? Modi went tub-thumping from stage to stage holding a kind of hands-up referendum on this question wherever he went. This was the turning point. Modi became a Gujarati icon overnight. In public rallies he is greeted by repeated chants of his pet name, Namo. His facial hair and his attire have inspired millions to try and look like him. Those who cannot make it, have to do with Modi shirts and masks, such is this man's charisma. All of this would have been impossible without Modi's subtle anti-Delhi posture. Neither development nor Hindutva, nor a combination of the two, could have helped Modi make it through the night to the second term. Modi's use of sub-nationalism not only foxed his opponents but puzzled the BJP high command in Delhi as well. L K Advani came along for the victory parade in Gujarat but he wore yesterday's look even as Modi was clearly the hero of the hour. In Bidhan Roy's time, the Congress too could sport this morally superior than thou anti-Centre attitude. But since then, only the Left Front has credibly pushed this sentiment of stung hurt to its advantage. And now we have Modi. Truly, what Bengal thought of yesterday, the rest of India thinks of today! The writer is professor of sociology, JNU.

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