(Corrects reference to Gandhi as a fourth-generation politician in fourth paragraph.)
Opinion polls show that India's elections in April and May probably will be marked by what the economist Surjit Bhalla calls “a Modi wave.” That means a mass turning away from the ruling Congress Party toward the charismatic and controversial opposition politician Narendra Modi, who brings a pro-business image, a positive record on development and governance, and an unusually negative one on religious and personal freedom.
Historically, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has struggled to win votes outside the north and the west of India because of its attachment to “Hindutva” (an assertion of fuzzy “cultural nationalism” about the primacy of Hinduism). But Modi is a once-in-a-generation politician whose appeal transcends the primarily Hindu, upper-caste, middle-class voter base of his party.
Even so, can a man with so many skeletons in his closet be entrusted with ensuring both economic progress and social peace in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy? Or is the Modi phenomenon not a wave at all, but more the meeting-point of many small and large sets of circumstances? Here's a small map of the diverse reasons Indians may be willing to grant Modi his wish to be prime minister.
First, Modi clearly wants power, and the responsibility that comes with it. Not all Indian politicians are as open about their ambition. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh having declined to seek a third term, Modi’s main rival for the post is Congress’s Rahul Gandhi. For a decade, Gandhi has played an elaborate charade of appearing to not really want power, as a way to evade the well-founded charge that he’s merely a fourth-generation dynast (his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather were all prime ministers of India) coasting on his inherited capital.
When Gandhi was anointed as the party’s vice-president two years ago, he said his mother Sonia Gandhi, the party president, had given him only one message: “Power is poison.”
In this narrative, Gandhi has gallantly agreed to be a prime ministerial candidate only for the sake of his party, and to save his country from the perils of majoritarian politics. An older generation might have bought this. To young Indians making their own way in the world, though, this attitude reeks of noblesse oblige and entitlement. This explains why Modi, a self-made man from a fairly low-caste background, has, at 63, much more of a hold on India’s youth than Gandhi, who is 43.
Second, Modi has the advantage of not only representing a party that stands for Hindu chauvinism (with all the gains that accrue electorally from this appeal to mass prejudice), but of having transcended this large niche, a phenomenon known in India as a votebank.
Modi first came to the attention of most Indians early in 2002, when horrific Hindu-Muslim violence erupted in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister. The riots raged without him appearing to want to stanch them. Later that year, he ran an immensely successful election campaign marked by strident and distasteful anti-Muslim rhetoric. Ever since, he has been a hero to Hindu nationalists and a villain to India's secular intelligentsia.
But even chauvinist politicians can afford to soften their rhetoric. Modi currently has entered such a phase. Beginning around 2010, he sought to reposition himself as a statesman with a grand vision for the country and a focus on good governance and development. Having once been a rabble-rousing chauvinist, he’s now become a sage, inclusive elder.
The 2014 elections will allow more than 100 million young voters, or almost a seventh of the electorate, to vote for the first time. To them, the violence of 2002 belongs to the realm of argument and hearsay, not experience. Many are happy to take the avuncular “Modi Mach 2” at face value. And to his credit, he has plenty to say to them about their aspirations.
Three, Modi satisfies the Indian craving for a strong father. The political attitudes of any society often derive from the dynamics of its smallest group: the family. The Indian family continues to be controlled by a dominant male -- the father in a nuclear family; the grandfather in a joint family -- to whom all others cede power and receive security and gratification in return.
Last, many Indians are willing to vote for Modi not because they trust him, but because they trust Indian democracy.
Religious and intellectual freedom would certainly be under threat if he became prime minister. But many Indian liberals and democrats, while having no illusions about Modi’s recent visionary turn, are willing to give him the chance to play to his strengths, believing that India’s cacophonous press and vibrant public sphere will rein in any temptation to misuse state power (as he did, for instance, as Gujarat's chief minister).
Those willing to look closer at the segments and joints of a “Modi wave” will also learn much about India's aspirations, dilemmas and compromises today.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.)
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