Narendra Modi is in my opinion the most talented politician of our time.
Of no other man can it be said that he has national appeal based on his performance in a single state. Not even leaders from states bigger than Gujarat, whether Maharashtra, Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh can command the attention he does. Events in New Delhi last weekend showed this. Never in their careers have mighty names like Sharad Pawar, Jyoti Basu, Karunanidhi and Mulayam Singh been as appealing outside of their state as Modi is today.
This is leadership in the true sense — the ability to create a following based on personality and ideology.
Many middle class Hindus admire Modi without the traditional attractions of caste, region and language. It is true that the BJP in Gujarat is and has always been a caste-based party. It is the vote of the peasant Patels which has kept the Congress out since 1990. But it is also true that the middle class support for Modi outside Gujarat is not based on his linguistic, regional or caste credentials.
If what I’ve said above is accurate, he is a transformational figure. The man who could in the next 15 months change our politics from being tribal and regional to being issue-based and national.
His problem is, however, that India isn’t a presidential democracy. Indians cannot directly vote for Modi to rule from Delhi. They can only vote for candidates from their particular Lok Sabha constituency.
Essentially, his supporters will have to vote for the BJP or its allies, rather than for Modi, if they want to see him take power. The question is whether he can, on the strength of all that I’ve said and accepted, insert himself into what has always been a series of state elections. So far Indian voters have always seen elections, even general elections, through the prism of language and caste.
Has Modi’s spectacular entry into national politics changed voter behaviour? Can he convince those outside Gujarat to vote for his party?
We will know the answer to this very soon. In a matter of months a BJP-ruled state is going into elections, Karnataka. So far, the BJP in that state has been a caste-based party, with broad support from the peasant Lingayats. In recent years, the BJP has been damaged there because of a split in Lingayat legislators. Some of them have broken away from the party to join Yeddyurappa, the Lingayat who was forced out as chief minister by the BJP’s Delhi leaders.
The magic of Modi has an opportunity to work itself now. It is widely thought that the BJP will lose to Congress in Karnataka because its caste base is divided.
Modi is scheduled to campaign in the state. Can he keep Karnataka with the BJP? He will have to if he is to show us and himself that his popularity is legitimate. That his very vocal Facebook and Twitter fans across India are also those who will vote for his party when he appeals to them for their vote.
The theory so far is that he brings the new Indian middle class into the party. Karnataka will actually demonstrate whether the Great Right Hope can deliver outside Gujarat.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist