By Swapan Dasgupta
The term 'gamechanger' has, unfortunately, been so generously overused that it has lost all meaning. This may explain why there is understandable hesitation to attach that label to Narendra Modi's three-hour roadshow in Varanasi on the afternoon of April 24. The extent to which this spectacular display of public support for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate is going to affect the outcome will be known by the afternoon of May 16. However, even before its impact on the voters of Varanasi and elsewhere are known, a few tentative conclusions are in order.
First, the Varanasi roadshow is to date the only opportunity Modi has had to test the extent of his support among ordinary voters. Security considerations have so far ruled out Modi travelling in an open vehicle through the towns and cities he has visited in the course of his 400+ public meetings since September 13, 2013, the day he was anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
Maybe it is just as well that the high threat perception ruled out Modi doing smaller versions of a rath yatra and forced him to concentrate on getting his message across through public meetings. Had Modi replicated his Varanasi roadshow in other parts of India, including in places where the BJP doesn't have much presence on the ground, the 2014 election may have seemed to be entirely one-sided affair. The security agencies' reluctance to expose Modi to the high-risk public arena has, quite unwittingly, helped keep alive the pretence that this election will go down to the wire.
The impact of the Varanasi roadshow on the political climate has been quite dramatic. Although some commentators persisted with their belief that Modi is entirely a creation of hype and that there is a sullen, silent majority that will troop to the polling stations and vote along caste and religious lines, those who were present at the venue--or those who saw the full broadcast on TV--had a very takeaway. The overall conclusion was that there is an amazing groundswell of support for Modi and that this election could experience a definite "Modi impact", if not a "Modi wave."
The punters who speculate on the stock exchangers have for long concluded that Modi is the likely winner of the 2014 election. Yet, the media remained sceptical as were most of the so-called opinion-makers, disproportionately based in Delhi. After Thursday afternoon's show, even the sceptics appear to have grudgingly conceded that the momentum is clearly with Modi.
The second consequence of the Varanasi roadshow is that commentators are latching on to every word of Modi to assist them in creating a mental picture of the philosophy that will drive Modi if and when he moves into Race Course Road.
For years Modi has been stressing the importance of a non-sectarian and non-discriminatory and all-embracing approach to administration and governance. I can recall that in his speeches in Gujarat he used to say that a new or improved public facility doesn't have denominational barriers. When a new bridge or road is built, it is for all citizens and not exclusively for Hindus or partially for Hindus. The shift in rhetoric from "six crore Gujaratis" to "100 crore Indians" was a natural, linear progression.
Unfortunately, the persistence of a section of the commentariat with the 2002 riots meant that Modi's message of "sab ke saath, sab ka vikas" suffered from a huge transmission loss. A grotesque caricature of Modi as a Hindu supremacist who will do to Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews continues to do the rounds. It has found reflection in the alarmist appeals by non-resident intellectuals to Indian voters to somehow stop the Modi bandwagon from rolling into Delhi. So much so that last Thursday, one eminent Left-leaning commentator equated Modi's Varanasi roadshow to the Nuremberg rallies of the National Socialists.
After the awesome scale of the roadshow began to sink in, the perception of Modi has begun to be modified. At Varanasi, Modi referred to the unique cultural traditions of Varanasi--the so-called Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. The importance of this simple acknowledgement of the richness and spread of India's "spiritual capital" was not so much that Modi had discovered the obvious. It was his way of forcefully dissociating himself from the extreme Hindu voices who have chosen this time to crawl out of the woodwork.
In the past too Modi had made gestures but each time they had been spurned on grounds of insincerity. This time he was heard and there was a rash of media speculation underling Modi's audacious bid to refashion his image by suggesting that he wanted to embrace all Indians without those Indians having to change their lifestyles and beliefs.
The 'changed' Modi makes appealing headlines and provides a subject for countless hours of studio discussions. But has Modi succumbed to the complex realties of India. The media would love to make us think that he has.
However, there is another perspective. Is it Modi who has changed? Alternatively, is it the media that has stopped looking at Modi with a pre-determined mindset? Has the fact that Modi looks like being on the cusp of a famous victory forced a review of a media position that had remain unchanged for so long? These are issues worth considering. But in accepting that the Modi of 2014 is not the Modi who was painted as an ogre for the past years, the media has bowed to popular opinion. Naturally, the retreat hasn't been graceful and hence the assertion that the media wasn't wrong but it is Modi who has changed.
Sunday Pioneer, April 27, 2014