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Chanting 'Modi, Modi': good for BJP, bad for India

Kiran Batni http://kiranbatni

Updated: March 27, 2014, 12:57 PM IST
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Twenty Fourteen must go down in history as a year in which Indian politics underwent a major change: the one from ideology-driven to ideology-less political campaigns. Those who work for the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress, the two major national parties, or are closely tied to them, are aware of the ideological differences that separate them from each other. It is only the eight hundred million strong Indian electorate that is being asked to remain blissfully ignorant of it.

This electorate, of course, will directly be at the receiving end of the ideology of the winning party. Only, it will not vote on ideological grounds in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. As a result, the party with the largest number of seats will get to lead the coalition Government of India for no specific reason. But this is not happening by chance. It is being meticulously planned and executed by the party seeking the maximum benefit from it, the BJP.

By declaring its prime ministerial candidate early in the game and making him the face of the party in every constituency across the nation, the BJP has made this election simply about that man, his charisma, his persona, and everything positive it can find or insert into his overall political track record. Forget all ideology, leave all debate and discussion everywhere, it is suggested, because the answer to everything everywhere is this man whose name is Narendra Modi. Just chant "NaMo NaMo" and all your troubles shall vanish, the hundreds of millions of Indians are told, by thousands of supporters who are doing just that, day after day, night after night.

One reason why this oversimplification makes sense to the BJP is that its ideological differences with the Congress cannot be safely included in its public narrative; it cannot make this election seem to be one about those differences. Another reason is that it's a safe exit for the party's corrosive ideology. If anything goes wrong, the BJP will happily ditch Modi and pick a new face, claiming it to be vastly superior to any India can find, including Modi's. The debate on ideological wrongs can then be replaced by one on what's wrong with the person of Modi.

But there is a deeper reason why the chanting of this Modinama is a superb strategy in India.

India is a very large and diverse country with multiple religions, races, and dozens of mutually unintelligible languages. The one thing a national party cannot have too much of is exposure. But it's not easy to get. A party has to cross very large distances - physical, linguistic, religious, cultural and racial - to reach out to the electorate. To win the election, therefore, a national party has to first win an exposure race. Ideology truly comes later in the game, if at all.

Now, this principle of exposure makes it necessary for the campaign message to be as light as possible. The best traveler is the one who travels lightest. Clearly, ideology fails to fit the bill. It is heavy; it cannot travel; it triggers debate and discussion, and meets with opposition. In a nation that houses a sixth of humanity, ideology is not the best choice for this thing that needs to travel to meet everyone and just say hello. If the ideology is against plurality and diversity, as in the case of the BJP, making it the message that needs to negotiate its way through the subcontinental wilderness is a recipe for failure.

The BJP has been downplaying its own diversity-intolerant ideology of Hindutva for quite some time now, but not well enough to secure a decisive victory in the last two Lok Sabha elections. This time, it appears, the party's strategists have come up with the superb idea of completely doing away with all ideology when going to the people. But what else can the party go to the people with? Surely it can't be nothing, because that doesn't give it any edge. Whatever it is, it must be something light enough to travel to every nook and corner of the subcontinent, and certainly something the Congress cannot replicate or hasn't thought of.

That magical thing, ladies and gentlemen, is a name.

India can easily obsess over a name. Hindus find it emancipating to just chant the name Krishna or Rama. There are devotional songs in which the devotee seeks nothing more than the power to chant these names. It takes no thinking whatsoever to repeat a name. If shortened to something that commands reverence, like NaMo (found in the popular namaste which roughly translates to "I bow to thee"), it not only takes very little energy to repeat, but also sows the seed of blind faith or obedience for no specific reason. Do not forget that when India repeats a name, it's a sixth of humanity doing it. That's way more currency than the name Buddha gets worldwide. If there's no counter-name being chanted, the political battle is almost won.

The Congress did not enter this exposure race early enough. It was only when the BJP started making fun of it, saying it doesn't have any true leaders, that Rahul Gandhi's name was pitted against Narendra Modi's, making the grand old party look like a cheap copycat.

There aren't many Indians who can recall the names of the current chief ministers of more than a couple of states. There aren't many Indians who can recall the name of their own chief minister or have heard the names of too many states other than their own. In such a nation, if one chief minister's name can be made known all over the nation, if he can be portrayed as an icon, if his state (which most of the population will never see or have a chance to check on in other ways in their lives) can be marketed as heaven on earth by deploying a nationwide propaganda machine fueled by corporate funds, this itself suffices for him and his party to win the exposure race, especially if the principal opposition isn't doing anything of the sort.

Of course, any name couldn't have worked. Despite all the ills of his party, Narendra Modi has a track record; he has been the chief minister of a state for thirteen years now, while Rahul Gandhi is inexperienced and also has the disadvantage of being the scion of a dynasty in a nation that has finally learnt to boo dynastic politics. So, every time one is made to compare Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, it is natural to 'vote' for Modi. A parallel can be drawn between the names of Krishna and the evil Kamsa: it is a no-brainer to 'vote' for Krishna. Of course, there's this thing about the 2002 riots that haunts Modi, but no truth is absolute. A sixth of humanity can never be made to believe anything in its entirety. Names are a different ball game; to repeat a name requires nothing; the psychological programming of the people happens easily and automatically. The name is the truth.

Amidst this widespread paralysis of Indian minds shall the next government be formed. Whether the BJP gets to lead it or not, the bigger harm seems to have come to stay: pushing ideology under the table and fooling the world's largest democracy into becoming its victim, seemingly voluntarily.

First Published: March 27, 2014, 12:57 PM IST