Vinod Mubayi and Daya Varma


Numerous polls carried out by well-known polling organizations indicate that BJP candidate Modi is the front-runner for the position of Prime Minister by a wide margin when compared to Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.  Some commentators have cast doubt on the validity of these poll results but they probably represent the majority views of the voters most likely to vote in the elections next month: the urban Hindu middle class voter whose views will strongly influence the outcome of the election.


Modi has been guilty of many crimes since he became Chief Minister of Gujarat.  The massacre of thousands of Muslims in 2002, encouraging terrorist acts against the minority as admitted by the undertrial Swami Aseemanand, and the killings of Ishrat Jehan and others by Gujarat police in staged ‘encounters’ undoubtedly with his knowledge, are just a few of his more egregious acts. Many of his close associates, whose acts could hardly have been committed without his acquiescence, have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, including life imprisonment, in legal proceedings initiated by India’s Supreme Court after the legal system in Modi’s own state showed itself to be incapable of prosecuting Hindutvawadis. Modi himself has managed to escape legal retribution for his many acts, through a combination of luck, bureaucratic ineptitude, and political and legal timidity at indicting the chief executive of a state. Each time he has managed to escape legal punishment, the media, whose moguls are now thoroughly behind him, blare that he has “been given a clean chit” by the judiciary, as if escaping judicial penalty by hook or by crook is an attribute that should be applauded in someone who aspires to the position of Prime Minister of India.


So, given this record, why is ahead in the polls?


Before dealing with this question, one factor, which needs to be acknowledged, is the extreme whitewashing his image has received since the BJP adopted him as its candidate. From his fearsome and fascistic image of “loh purush” (iron man) he has morphed into a more benign smiley image of “vikas purush” (economic development man), based on a distorted and highly manipulated rendering of Gujarat’s economic record, as detailed in a companion article by Rohini Hensman and Atul Sood  in this issue. Suffice it to say that under his leadership the largest corporate sectors in India literally run and own Gujarat; in their gratitude, they naturally want to do anything they can to make Modi India’s PM so they can run and own the whole country. However, while the incessant pro-Modi media blitz helps to promote him, it does not explain his poll popularity fully.


One element undoubtedly is the growing pro-Hindutva feelings in a majority of Hindus. Modi articulates the most right wing and extreme version of this attitude; this played a role in his choice as leader, as determined by RSS, over more moderate politicians like Advani. This element has been growing steadily over the last three decades aided by the pervasive and growing practice of religious identity politics. As an article in the most recent issue of the magazine Frontline said: “A Lucknow-based senior RSS activist told Frontline that for the past 15 years Gujarat had been the Sangh Parivar’s laboratory where Hindutva polarization was clubbed with the fabrication of a development model to reap major political gains. “We are very close to successfully advancing this combination at the national level forcefully,” he pointed out.”


However, another, perhaps more important, element came up in talking to several upwardly mobile middle-class urban Indians of various ages and occupations during a recent trip to India. These people feel a deep and unrelenting anger at Congress over the economic slowdown in recent years that they attributed to government corruption, a topic on which Congress is very vulnerable due to scams such as 2G and Coalgate. What was more revealing, however, is the anger directed against NREGA (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that gives a measure of income support to the poor) and the Food Security Bill.


These two pieces of legislation are some of the few positive achievements of the UPA government as they provide a floor for support of the poorest segments of society. However, the middle and upper class reaction, reinforced by none-too-subtle nods in the media, reflects a classic upper class hatred of “handouts to the undeserving and lazy poor.” They think that the resources being given to the poor are coming from the pockets of the middle-class and are responsible for the slowdown in economic growth. Of course they try to justify their anger by claiming that government corruption will eat up these funds, a line of propaganda that is easy to direct against Congress. Modi harps on this incessantly and many poll questions show that a significant part of his appeal comes from this issue.  The BJP’s own massive corruption in the mining scam in Karnataka that led to the defeat of its government in that state last year has been conveniently airbrushed in the media. These feelings among the middle-class are reminiscent of the revolt of the upper caste youth against Mandal 25 years ago. That particular period marked the rise of the BJP at the national level from a mere 2 or 3 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to the 182 seats it achieved in the late 1990s.


Given Modi’s record, it is natural that many people in India are naturally worried that Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) might win a majority in the forthcoming parliamentary election due this and next months and Narendra Modi might become the Prime Minister of India. This undoubtedly will represent the lowest level to which India would descend since its independence in 1947; but as the polls show there is a good chance it would.


Modi could win precisely because he meets the expectations of the vocal Hindu middle class whose values and expectations resemble those that made possible the electoral victories of European fascists in the 1920s in Italy and the 1930s in Germany. The climate of fear and intimidation being created is summarily revealed by the very recent episode of the Penguin publishing house in India. There is a legitimate condemnation of Penguin’s decision to withdraw Wendy Donigar’s book “The Hindus an Alternative History”. The condemnation of Penguin by some of India’s authors who had their books published by Penguin or had signed a contract for forthcoming books is laudable. But Penguin reached an out-of-court settlement with an insignificant Hindutva group to destroy all copies of Donigar’s book because as an experienced publisher it knows which way the wind is blowing and did not wish to confront resurging fascism. This is also the reason why US Ambassador in India wishes to meet Modi despite the current ban on a US visa to Modi.

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