From now till May 2014, there will only be one topic of political conversation—Narendra Modi as a likely PM. The BJP has a hot potato on its hands. The primary in the party is over much too soon. Narendra Modi is the winner. It is the losers who have to adjust their positions. They have to fall in line and find modes of co-operation. Modi was emollient in his victory speech and paid tributes to the party and the RSS and even apologised. The RSS will have to recant its opposition to him and fall into line. The slightly less than two-thirds score may have made Modi more accommodating than we expected.
Congress has the tougher job. It has been in denial for three elections now that Modi could win. The enormity of the 2002 riots led many people into branding Modi the worst chief minister under whose charge a horrid event happened. Never before has a communal riot been personally blamed on one person. It may yet be that someone somewhere will find evidence to convict Narendra Modi of an offence which will invite punishment. It would be a unique event for the Indian justice system. The Executive in India escapes punishment regardless of the political party in power.
But even more important than that question is whether Modi’s triple victory represents a watershed for the Nehruvian idea of India. For the first forty years after Independence, the hegemony of the Nehruvian vision was unquestioned. The Emergency did imply that there are challenges the Nehruvian consensus could not face. The Janata episode threatened to dismount it but failed. Ten more years and in 1989, the Congress hegemony ended but the ideological domination of Nehruvian ideas remained. BJP had gained respectability from having fought the Emergency and it consolidated its position by grassroots work against the dominant ideology. They began to criticise secularism as a minoritarian project. They entered schools in Gujarat where they began to tell children about the Ram Mandir. The BJP domination of the last five Gujarat elections has not been an accident.
The Babri Masjid demolition cost the BJP a setback in popular vote. It recovered but AB Vajpayee had to be almost like a Congress leader, avuncular and inclusive. Even so, 2004 saw a defeat for BJP. Now after two terms of UPA, the shoe is on the other foot. Bar a miracle revival of the growth rate and collapse in inflation, it is unlikely that the Congress will be back in harness. It would need at least 150 seats, which seems highly unlikely at present. The Gujarat project of challenging secularism is here. Modi against Rahul is no contest; Modi against Sonia Gandhi may be the only choice open to the Congress.
The Hindu Right has not won the cultural argument at the sophisticated level. Indian history has been written by Nehruvians and their Left fellow travelers. K M Munshi tried long ago via the History of India sponsored by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to establish a Hindu view of India but it lost the ideological battle to the Left secular version. But the Left has wandered off to post-colonial studies and nothing new has come from the Nehruvians for decades.
The Islamist terrorism that Osama Bin Laden launched against the West included India among the enemy. Secularism thus faces a problem of redefinition. The practice of secularism has not materially helped Muslims in any case. They and other deprived groups know they can only gain by helping themselves if the economy thrives. Congress offers its programme of subsidies and reservations but parents want their children to do better than themselves. They want their children to learn English to escape poverty. They want rapid growth and modern infrastructure. Modi promises to deliver just that. Can the Congress stop Modi?