First, diplomats from countries such as the UK and the US, which had shunned contact with Narendra Modi, turned up to serenade the chief minister of Gujarat.
Then, even more industrialists feted the man who has always been openly admired by businessmen during an annual investment conference.
Finally, and more recently, top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threw their weight behind Modi, effectively signalling that he is the man to lead the party in the next general election, due in 2014.
Meanwhile, a growing number of middle-class voters, even outside Gujarat, dote on him, drawing from his carefully crafted image of toughness and incorruptibility.
There’s a sense of deja vu about all this.
A similar trend preceded the coronation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as India’s first BJP prime minister in 1998. Indeed, if the current trend continues, and if the BJP does finally nominate Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, there is a good chance of NaMo generating a wave in the next general election. Not only has he cleverly positioned himself as the best option, he has also created an imagery that highlights the inadequacies of his opponents—within the BJP and without. And in a masterful move, he has never articulated either his ambition or intent—everybody else, particularly his many critics, have spoken of him in this light.
The dramatic loss of momentum of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in its second tenure (although there has been a rush of activity in recent months), and fundamental concerns on governance—especially allegations of corruption in public office and the government’s inexplicable inability to contain inflation—have created a political environment that favours the opposition.
The fact that the BJP has been unable to exploit this has only worked in Modi’s favour. Capital Calculus has in the past argued that the resulting vacuum was waiting to be exploited. Now, a confluence of factors suggests that Modi had indeed seized the moment.
The big variable over Modi’s candidature was his and his party’s performance in the recently concluded Gujarat election. Despite what his critics said and did, Modi won decisively for the third time. That he was going to win was a foregone conclusion, given that the Congress barely put up a fight.
Most debates about the election and the possibility of Modi becoming his party’s prime ministerial candidate ignored the critical issue of the man’s ability to manage a coalition at the centre, especially given that his way of dealing with dissent within Gujarat’s BJP unit has been to stamp it out. That can’t work in a diverse coalition.
The shining Gujarat story has only enhanced Modi’s image, especially to industry, as someone who can deliver on promises. (Recall Ratan Tata’s remark about the “good M” and the “bad M”, immediately after an agitation sponsored by Mamata Banerjee aborted the company’s small car project in West Bengal.) The business-friendly administration Modi seems to promise is critical in a country where industrialists, despite whatever they say, are crucially dependent on government not just for permissions, but also bailouts when things go wrong.
What has also worked in Modi’s favour is the UPA’s apparent softness in dealing with Pakistan. While jingoism demands an eye for an eye, pragmatism suggests otherwise and a war or even a skirmish with a nuclear armed neighbour could have catastrophic consequences. It is the UPA’s failure to make its case, like Vajpayee did after the Parliament attack in 2001 that has hurt the coalition. In 2001, Vajpayee mobilized troops without actually going to war, beat some sense into Pakistan, and appeased middle class righteous angst. In politics, it is not what you do, but what you are seen to be doing that is critical. Modi’s belligerence appeals to middle-class voters, and suggests, none too subtly, that he will stand up to Pakistan.
What the middle class, and young voters think is important. Thanks to the Indian economy’s rapid growth, urbanization has got a big push. Officially, the proportion of the urban population is estimated at 33% by the 2011 Census; include census towns, glorified villages that mimic urban characteristics, this proportion is almost half. Since voting patterns in urban India generally differ from rural India, the middle class, already under stress from joblessness, rampant inflation and failed aspirations, may hold the key to the next general election.
Finally, there is a visible communal polarization happening across the country. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, it is not being inspired by Hindutva ideological forces. Instead, the pressure is coming from an upsurge of fringe Muslim groups, which in a bid to unseat the moderate elements are playing a radical Islam card. Recent events relating to Akbaruddin Owaisi and fringe groups in Tamil Nadu bear this out. Overt attempts by political parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Congress to pacify these groups through policy interventions has only further reinforced the polarization; once again, these interventions have created, at least in the minds of some Hindu voters, the feeling that they are being persecuted. Modi’s visible Hindutva credentials only make him the perfect candidate to tap such sentiment.
In the final analysis, it is evident that the current context favours a Modi-inspired wave. It is not surprising that some opinion polls have shown that the BJP will overwhelm the Congress if polls are held now.
Still, there is nothing permanent about politics and political trends, and things could change—almost overnight. The general election is still officially a year away—a lot can happen between now and then.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com