Putin, Erdogan... Modi? Tracking the BJP's impending PR calamity

Shubham Ghosh
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What's the common link between Vladimir Putin,  Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi? All three are political titans in their respective countries, helped by a non-existent, or weak opposition.

There is also a major difference. Putin retains his stranglehold on Russian politics amid allegations of imprisoning and even assassinating political opponents.

Erdogan used the recent failed coup attempt to prosecute his opponents and feed the flames of paranoia.

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Modi, however, is the leader of a vibrant democracy, and while his opponents don't fear Siberian Gulags or prisons; there is a streak of fear that the man inspires. A fear of the unpredictable.

 On Thursday (March 16) the PM showed that his hunger for success is insatiable as he instructed BJP's leaders and cadre to gear up for the parliamentary elections of 2019.

At a time when most statesmen begin to feel the stress of an impending vote, here is a leader who is eager to rush towards his next big battle.

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The mammoth victories in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand a week ago have bolstered Modi's confidence to such extreme levels that one Opposition leader even advised anti-Modi forces not to think much about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and instead focus on the 2024 edition.

There is nothing at the moment that can stop Modi's juggernaut.

Unlike Putin or Erdogan, Narendra Modi has a functioning Opposition

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India's functioning and often vibrant democracy means that Modi has to work much harder than either Putin or Erdogan to keep his brand alive and viable, and that makes him vulnerable.

Even though he has wiped out the Opposition, Modi cannot now suspend the very democracy that helped him to the top, and take on a dictatorial style, a la Indira Gandhi and her emergency in the mid-1970s. Hence, no matter how many states the saffron party or its allies bag under Modi's thumping leadership, the inherent pressure of democracy is always going to challenge the prime minister at critical moments.

So far, so good... so what!

This writer had said in an earlier column that the politics of the BJP has evolved over time.

The latest victory in UP has a qualitative difference from the victory in 1991 as issues like Hindu-Muslim polarisation or Babri/Ram Temple did not figure in the BJP's agenda this time as blatantly as they used to be in the past.

As a former chief minister of a state known for its development, Modi has continued to make development his main plank in all elections. He has also done it to get rid of the divisive image which has plagued him since the pogroms of 2002.

So far, this transformation has been flawless and has left those who hoped to cast Modi as a religiously polarising figure, at a loose end. To top that, the man's incredibly smart political moves like 'surgical strikes' and demonetisation have thwarted his critics.

We've been here before, and the rise always precedes the fall

But politics is unpredictable. Just like the law of averages in cricket, there is bound to be a period of retreat in BJP politics and Modi is certainly not a superman to evade that.

In the elections of 1977, 1989 or 2004, the people of India made sure popular leaders realised who was really in charge. Modi is clever enough to keep the unpredictable side of democracy in his mind, but is the BJP making sure that complacency doesn't set in? Will it return to the old ways of promoting polarisation the day Modi's pro-development truck hits a hurdle?

Atrocities against minorities have been a regular feature in Modi's India

Despite the pro-development image, Modi's India has also seen horrific instances like the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on suspicion of eating beef in the same UP where the BJP swept the polls; the flogging of Dalits for skinning a dead cow; rising atrocities against Christians and their churches, et al.

The latest UP polls also saw the 'kabaristaan versus saamshan' narrative gaining currency in the PM's campaign speech. His lieutenant Amit Shah also reignited the painful memory of the past by labelling the BJP's opponents 'KaSab', during the same polls.

As long as the perception of communalism hangs over Modi, he will never be known and respected as a truly inclusive leader, and that is something that should bother the BJP top brass. In an India where political alternatives have become rare, Modi is certainly going to be the preferred choice for a while.

But at some point he will have to reach out to minorities with more than just rhetoric and start distancing himself from the more communally rabid factions in his party, if he wants to be remembered as a PM in the mould of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Modi is riding a wave, and now is the time to make a clean break from the past

Why don't Modi and his team start exorcising the ghosts of the past now, soon after registering their second big victory in less than three years?

Why doesn't Modi send a clear message to his fanatic soldiers and followers to get their act together and preserve the plurality that is the bedrock India?

Why doesn't he establish the fact that with its massive mandate and pro-development mission, the BJP doesn't need the affiliation of outfits like the RSS?

At the end of the day, Modi needs great chemistry with all sections of society if he wants history to remember him as the greatest Indian leader ever.

Modi, unlike Putin and Erdogan, does not have the luxury of imprisoning those who speak out against him. He is also a slave to the vote, and as we all know, the people can be the most brutal opposition of all.

After renewing his referendum in the 2017 UP elections, Modi's prime objective should be to get closer to minorities, who are still wondering whether behind all the talk of progress, is a man still mired in a perceived communal past, just waiting for the right opportunity to turn on them.

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