Pragmatic | What the Time poll tells us

That Mr Modi is a polarising political figure. And it bears upon his national ambitions

Most of you have heard the old jungle saying: “No internet poll is worth the ether it consumes.” And The 2012 TIME 100 Poll, which featured Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, should have been no different. But like a broken clock which is right twice a day, the Time poll is also right, albeit in a limited way.

Conforming to popular belief that internet is populated by fans of the Gujarat chief minister, Mr Modi has got the third-highest number of Yes votes: 256792. That he surprisingly got the highest number of No votes, 266684, is also not the story. The Yes votes could have been a couple of thousand more than the No votes but that still wouldn’t matter. The significance lies in what these numbers tell us: That Mr Modi is a polarising figure in India. A polarising figure is different from a figure of importance or prominence, and that is where Ishaan Tharoor gets it partially wrong.

But how does it matter if Mr Modi is a polarising figure? It matters because most of Mr Modi’s vocal supporters want to see him as India’s next prime minister. A polarising leader can rule a state where his party has an absolute majority but will find it nearly impossible to govern a country when his party can, at best, hope to get one-third seats in the Lok Sabha (Read Rohit Pradhan’s piece in Pragati for more on the future political scenario). Moreover, India doesn’t need a polarising prime minister, especially now, when assertions based on identities of caste, religion and region are creating major social upheaval. The economy is faltering and the common man is losing trust in the institutions of the state.

The last polarising prime minister India had was VP Singh. After he declared the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations, the backward classes hailed him while the upper classes despised him. The society was fractured. The politics and counter-politics of the Mandal movement severely wounded the country. It took more than a decade to heal those wounds, aided by a period of rapid economic growth and a generation out of college which had no first-hand experience of Mandal and Mandir. Another polarising leader at the helm in Delhi can similarly set India back by a decade. But Mr Modi is not Mr VP Singh, argue his supporters — he is a far better administrator than him. Right?

Yes, that may be true but it doesn’t matter. There is no post of CCLA, Chief Civilian Law Administrator in India (analogous to the erstwhile CMLA, Chief Military Law Administrator in Pakistan). The post of India’s prime minister is a political one and our politics demands someone like Atal Behari Vajpayee who can be trusted by his supporters and opponents alike. That is where Mr Modi’s challenge lies. Leave alone India, the opinion about him is polarised within his own party, the BJP — and in the NDA. Like any other conservative leader, he faces the dilemma of either pandering to his core supporters or making a bold move to engage new audiences and risk losing the core support base. He seems to have made the choice, to stick with the former. But the road from Gandhinagar to Delhi is not one which he can travel alone. He needs allies, and he needs wider acceptability. More significantly, he needs lesser unacceptability.

Let me explain how. Mr Modi may never get around to be acceptable to a majority of people in a diverse country like India. No politician in India is, whether it be a Nitish Kumar or a Naveen Patnaik. But unlike Mr Modi, a Nitish or a Patnaik are not unacceptable to a vast majority of people. People may not vote for them but they are not going to come out to vote against them. It is not the case with Mr Modi, as the Time poll clearly shows. A Nitish Kumar in a similar internet poll may have got only 30-35% of the Yes votes that Mr Modi received but the No votes for Nitish wouldn’t have been more than 10-15% of the No votes that Modi got. This is Mr Modi’s handicap.

The Time magazine covers, the Washington Post interviews and a Brookings blogpost are not going to alter that fact. The efforts of the international lobbying firm APCO to allegedly garner this coverage are also not going to make a difference. If the intention of this media blitz in the US was to increase Mr Modi’s acceptability, the effect has been the opposite. It has reminded everyone that Mr Modi is a polarising figure in Indian politics. And will find it difficult to be an acceptable national leader in a country as diverse as India. That is the real message from the Time poll.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.