Saturday, 20 July 2013

Use Your Ghatotkachas And Indra Shaktis Wisely

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 20 July, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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The past few months have seen frenetic activity in India’s political landscape, much of it involving the rise of Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister, to the forefront of national politics in India, and the reaction of the UPA and other political parties to this continuing development.

The rise of Mr. Modi has been neither smooth nor easy.  In fact, the rocky ride to the top of the BJP of Mr. Modi has given much cause for cheer to the Congress party, the JD (U) led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Mulayam Singh Yadav, and other detractors of Mr. Modi, even prompting some of their members, such as Manish Tewari, Digvijay Singh, Nitish Kumar, Renuka Chowdhury and Shashi Tharoor, to gloat publicly with unrestrained glee at what they perceive as Modi’s discomfiture.

I argue that the UPA, the JD (U), the SP, and other parties opposed to Modi do not really have any cause for cheer in the developments that have happened in the last couple of months.  On the contrary, they may have a lot more to worry about than they did before June 2013.  Either they are ignorant of this, or their cheer and gloating is much like the nervous laugh that some of us exhibit when we are embarrassed – in an obvious attempt to cover up our discomfort at a joke that may have been made at our expense or when an uncomfortable personal detail that we wanted kept secret is revealed without warning in public by one of our friends. 

Why this conclusion is warranted, viz., that the UPA, the JD (U), the SP, and other adversaries of Mr. Modi should all be very worried about Mr. Modi’s actions, and not celebrate right now, is the focus of this article.

The Perceived Troubles of Mr. Modi

To say that there has been turmoil in the BJP in the last few months is to state the staggeringly obvious.  Let us remind ourselves of some of the factors responsible for the turmoil:

1.       Supporters of Narendra Modi step up pressure for him to be named BJP’s PM candidate.
2.      Bihar CM Nitish Kumar makes some not-so-veiled comments expressing concern about Modi.
3.      BJP conducts its national meeting crowning Modi as chairman of its election campaign committee.
4.      Advani resigns from the party due to his opposition to the party elevating Modi.
5.      BJP convinces Advani to return to the party – without giving him anything in return.
6.      Nitish Kumar decides to leave the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), his party’s 17-year old alliance with the BJP.
8.     Mr. Modi gives an interview to Reuters, in which he talks about the 2002 riots and likens the death of the Muslims under his rule to a puppy coming under the wheel of a car which he was not himself driving.
9.      The vice-president of the Delhi unit of the BJP, Aamir Raza Hussain, resigns after criticizing Modi’s attitude to Muslims and taking exception to his “puppy” remark in his Reuters interview.
10.  Amit Shah goes to Ayodhya, makes a statement about building a grand temple to the baby Ram there.  The next day, Rajnath Singh, BJP president, clarifies that Amit Shah’s statement should not be taken in a political vein but as a personal statement from a devout Hindu. 
11.   More recently, in the same Reuters interview, Modi claims that he is a Hindu nationalist and that there is nothing wrong with being one.  Posters of Modi saying “I am Hindu nationalist” come up all over Mumbai, on orders of the BJP.
12.  The CBI files a charge sheet against the Gujarat police and the Intelligence Bureau, accusing them of engineering a fake encounter against Ishrat Jahan, a suspected terrorist, in 2004.  There is widespread TV coverage of the event, and lengthy debates on the integrity of the Gujarat police, and whether they were wrong in engineering a fake encounter.

The Congress and its allies have, understandably, felt very satisfied at the turn of events surrounding Modi and the BJP.  To the UPA, these events indicate to them that, under Mr. Modi’s leadership, the BJP will lose all its allies; it will lose all support from minorities and liberal Hindus; there will be dissension within the BJP, pitting supporters of Mr. Modi against those of Mr. Advani or Ms. Swaraj; and the talk of Hindu nationalism will turn off voters who are charmed by Modi’s development agenda.

All these are valid conclusions, but they ignore one fundamental truth about politics – that the three most important things (after money) in political campaigns are timing, timing, and timing!

Lessons from Sun Tzu

The importance of timing in war (and a political campaign is really a war) has been recognized since ancient times.  For example, the tremendously destructive second World War would never had happened had France sent its troops across the German border the day the Germans invaded Poland.  France had the numerical superiority to defeat Germany, which would have been caught unawares, and the entire war would have been over in 2 weeks.  It was France’s failure to do so at the right time that led to 6 more years of fighting to defeat Hitler.

But this is simply a modern example.  A commentator as ancient as Sun Tzu (ca. 500 BC) has talked extensively (inasmuch as the word “extensively” can be applied to Sun Tzu’s writings) about the importance of timing, the importance of surprise, and the need to catch your opponent in his weak moments.

I quote from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” Chapter 1, Verses 18-25:

18. All warfare is based on deception.

19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

21. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

23. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

25. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

What do all these have to do with Narendra Modi?  The principles enshrined in the Art of War have clearly been understood by Modi, whether or not he has read Sun Tzu (although listening to his speeches, one is tempted to think that he surely must have – he is a fairly well-read man and often makes references to China and Korea, indicating an interest in the Far East).  His moves have perplexed friend and foe alike – hence the emphasis on deception.  

Further, careful observers will notice that Modi did not respond himself to the various provocations by Nitish Kumar, Advani, and many other people from his own party, hence, following the maxim, “when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive.”  Modi, instead of shying away from his record as a proponent of Hindutva, is actually asking the BJP to put up giant hoardings of his claiming he is a Hindu nationalist – hence, “Hold out baits to entice the enemy.  Feign disorder...” with the intention to later “...crush him.”  The interview with Reuters is also an example of following the maxim, “If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him.”

The Modi campaign is full of surprises.  Who would have imagined that Amit Shah would be put in charge of UP and, shortly thereafter, make a statement about building a Ram temple there?  Again, “appear where you are not expected.”  In fact, given that the biggest monkey on Modi’s back is the 2002 riots, one would have expected him to make a lot of secular-sounding statements, play down the Hindutva card, forbid any talk of a Ram temple, and talk only about Gujarat’s development.  

Yet Modi continues to surprise, and no one should make the mistake of thinking these are slips of the tongue or ill-thought-out moves.  He clearly has aces up his sleeve, but he will not talk about them now, following the maxim that these aces “must not be divulged beforehand.” If one can characterize one thing about Narendra Modi with crystal clarity, it is that he is a political animal and his instincts are very sure.  His three election victories in Gujarat are no accident.  Modi understands very clearly what he is doing and why.  But before we get to that, let us examine lessons from another ancient classic, this time closer to home – The Mahabharata.

The Curious Case of Karna and the Indra Shakti

The BJP has always been known to have a favourable stance towards Hindu mythology and Sanskrit.  While it may be debatable whether India would have been better off with Sanskrit instead of English, as Rajnath Singh recently suggested, in today’s knowledge economy, there is no doubt in my mind that the Congress, the JD (U), and other self-styled “secular” parties would do well to understand the lessons from our ancient epics such as the Mahabharata.  It might actually help them defeat their arch-enemy, the BJP.  In fact, I hold that not understanding the lessons from these epics has led to them making important tactical mistakes in the recent past.

One of the most interesting characters from the Mahabharata is Karna, the half-brother of the Pandavas whose real identity is known to very few in the epic.  Karna, being the son of the Sun God Surya, is said to have been born with a natural coat of armour and divine ear-rings, the possession of which rendered him invincible in battle owing to the fact that the armour could not be pierced by any weapon.  

Arjuna’s father, the God Indra, realizing that a final battle one day between Karna and his son Arjuna was inevitable, intervenes on the side of his son by resorting to deceit.  The noble Karna had a habit of giving freely to Brahmins whatever they asked of him after his morning prayers.  Indra appeared before him as a Brahmin one day and asked as alms Karna’s natural armour and ear-rings.  Without a thought Karna cut off the skin from his own body and handed it over to Indra, knowing full well who the Brahmin really was.  

In return for this unprecedented act of generosity, Indra offered a boon to Karna.  Karna asked for Indra’s infallible weapon, the Indra Shakti (also known as the Naikartana).  Indra understood who Karna meant to use it against and gave him the weapon, albeit with a rider – that Karna could use it only once in his life.  The person whom Karna chose to use it against would definitely lose his life, but after one use it would return to Indra.

In the final, climactic battle of the Mahabharata, at Kurukshetra, on the 14th day of the battle, the battle is extended beyond sunset.  Now, the second Pandava, Bhima, had a son, Ghatotkacha, by his Rakshasa wife, Hidimba.  The strength and power of Rakshasas were said to multiply manifold at night and they had in their possession powers of illusion which increased their menace.  

Consequently, on the night of the 14th day, Krishna advises Ghatotkacha to attack the Kauravas and specifically Karna, even though Arjuna volunteers to fight Karna.  Krishna tells Arjuna that the time for Arjuna to fight Karna has not yet arrived, for Karna still possesses the deadly weapon of Indra.

In the long and deadly fight between Karna and Ghatotkacha, while Ghatotkacha is unable to faze Karna, he still kills tens of thousands of Kauravas, and as long as he is alive the Kauravas will continue to lose lives.  In desperation, they call on Karna to use the Indra Shakti against Ghatotkacha and save them, which he eventually does.  As expected, Ghatotkacha dies, and the Indra Shakti, having accomplished its task, goes straight to heaven and to its master, Indra.

There is great grief in the Pandava camp at the loss of Bhima’s son, who was a great warrior in addition to being a close relative.  Everyone is sad – except Krishna.  Krishna actually dances a dance of joy and, when Arjuna is puzzled about this and questions him on his behaviour, explains that as long as Karna had the Shakti, Arjuna could never defeat him and would probably have been slain by him – but now that Karna has used the Shakti on Ghatotkacha, he can be slain and Arjuna is safe.  And this is what eventually happens.  The death of Ghatotkacha did not cripple the Pandavas - the death of Arjuna would almost certainly have done so.

The Indra Shaktis of the UPA, Nitish, and Advani

In light of this, consider what has happened with Narendra Modi.  In recent months, several developments have happened that would have rocked the BJP to its roots had they happened at the right time.  The revolt by Advani, for instance, is the equivalent of an Indra Shakti being hurled at Modi.  For a while, it did shake Modi and the BJP.  But Modi the chairman of the election committee, one year before the election, is a Ghatotkacha, a different person from Modi the challenger, the Arjuna, 3 months before the election.  Had Advani performed his stunt 3 months before the election, the effect on the party would have been chaotic and the action would have probably thrown the party into disarray, from which they probably would not have recovered in time for the elections.

Similar things can be said about Nitish leaving the NDA.  Had he done so 3 months before the election, the resulting perception could have been catastrophic for the BJP.  But what has happened instead?  Modi and the BJP have taken these blows on the chin and stood their ground.  Nitish has already quit the NDA; he cannot cause more damage by quitting a second time.  

Advani’s revolt is now a forgotten matter and, more to the point, he cannot do it again, just as Karna could not use the Indra Shakti again!  Advani has already tested the BJP’s response to his stunt – and seen that while he could get people worried, he could not shake them.  Knowing this, and having taken back his resignation, Mr. Advani only stands to lose whatever esteem he still has left if he tries another stunt.

Similarly, Nitish Kumar struck, and struck as hard as he could, but the BJP has survived, and it is not really a matter of concern any longer to the BJP.  A desperate UPA then unleashed the CBI to cause more damage to Modi’s image.  The CBI charge sheet, indicting the Gujarat police for engineering a fake encounter to eliminate Ishrat Jahan, a suspected terrorist, was the focus of much debate.  The CBI may, indeed, even have proof that Ishrat Jahan was eliminated in a fake encounter.  But as a weapon against Modi, the attempt was quite lame.  

The reason is that fake encounters have been used extensively by Congress governments to finish off terrorists, Maoists, and political opponents.  The best example of this is the Punjab, where the Congress government, under the able guidance of KPS Gill, is alleged to have committed more than 41000 murders in the form of fake encounters, according to the US State Department and Amnesty International.  

While the TV channels were abuzz with outrage against the Gujarat government for a couple of days, on the third or fourth day I saw a debate on NDTV (yes, even NDTV) talking not about the Gujarat government in particular, but about whether or not fake encounters are good or bad.  The discussion freely mentioned the many killings in the Punjab and the anchor even intervened at times to try to take the partisan angle out of the debate.  So this Indra Shakti, too, had failed – and, as with the others, it cannot be used again.

Of course, there have been other Indra Shaktis aimed at Modi, all of which have damaged other Ghatotkacha avatars of Mr. Modi – such as the 2002 riots probes against Chief Minister Modi, which certainly did sufficient damage to Mr. Modi’s reputation that he still cannot get a visa to the USA.  But, having wreaked its destruction on Chief Minister Modi, it cannot be used again against Prime Ministerial candidate Modi, because its energy has been spent and various committees, such as the SIT investigation committee, have not found any evidence linking Mr. Modi to the riots. 

Another case which was the equivalent of an Indra Shakti launched by the UPA against Modi was the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, in which the UPA shed tears for a known underworld criminal who had 60 pending cases against him at the time of his fake encounter, including cases for extortion and murder, not to mention proven links with international terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim, India’s most wanted criminal.  The UPA couldn’t have chosen a worse person to portray as a hero who was cruelly struck down by a fake encounter at the behest of Modi – but that Indra Shakti has also returned to its master, and no link of the entire episode to Modi could be proven, although his right-hand man Amit Shah was implicated. 

The Indra Shakti of Communalism

The latest surprise from Mr. Modi’s campaign is his portrayal of himself as a Hindu nationalist.  Much like Krishna asked Ghatotkacha to challenge Karna to battle on the night of the 14th day of the battle of Kurukshetra, in order to entice Karna to throw his Indra Shakti at him, this is another ploy by Campaign Committee Chairman Modi, the current Ghatotkacha, to get the Congress to throw (probably) its last remaining Indra Shakti, that of the communalism charge, at him so that PM candidate Modi (Arjuna) will not have to face it.  These moral arguments, be it fake encounters or communalism, simply do not have the same force or appeal when used a second time.

Modi is a very canny political calculator, and has understood the effect that his speeches at SRCC in Delhi, Fergusson College in Pune, and other places are having on the educated middle class of the country.  He knows that the middle class understands his economic policies and his vision for the country so well that he will not have to worry about losing their support.  

But this message might not resonate everywhere in the country, especially in the rural hinterland.  To some of them, and to reassure many of the BJP’s traditional supporters, the people who think building a temple for Ram at Ayodhya is important, Modi is mixing and matching his messages to appeal to a broader base.  I personally know of people in Tamil Nadu, where they don’t even speak Hindi, who have been captivated by Mr. Modi’s vision.  This confidence of so many people in Mr. Modi gives him the luxury of broadening his base without losing anything.

Part of this Hindutva message is also for internal consumption.  Modi needs to reassure his backers, the RSS, without whose help he could never have overcome as formidable an opponent as LK Advani, that they have chosen the right man for the job, and these are sops to the hardline right in the BJP and RSS, whose support Modi certainly needs in the upcoming elections.  Make no mistake: if Modi leads the BJP to victory in 2014 and is made the PM, he certainly will have to do something in return for the hardline rightwingers of his party, although development will likely still be the centerpiece of his administration. You have to pay your political dues.  But as long as Hindutva is only a sidelight and not the highlight of his rule, those who support Modi in the belief that he will bring in a new era of development in India need not worry.

Mr. Modi knows that publicly announcing his support for a temple at Ayodhya and calling himself a Hindu nationalist will cause a backlash from the “secular” media and the “secular” parties, but his plan is very clear - to take the blows on the chin at this stage so that he is never forced to act apologetic about being called a Hindu nationalist in the future.  The advantage for Mr. Modi with this strategy is that once the flurry of accusations stops, he will not have to defend himself again on that count.  Another Indra Shakti rendered useless, wasted on another Ghatotkacha, another avatar of Modi.  Only this time Mr. Modi has asked for it himself.

Why is he doing all this?  As I said at the very outset: timing, timing, timing.  With the UPA and its secular friends having emptied their quiver of all their Shaktis, it will be very hard for them to counter Mr. Modi later.  There is still a year to go (or maybe 6 months if early elections are called) before the elections and if your opponents’ arsenal is already empty, it will be tough going for them.  

Sure, there are still smaller weapons being hurled at Modi, such as Uddhav Thackeray saying he’s not thrilled about Modi, but clearly the potency of the weapons has gone down a notch.  Uddhav is no Advani or Nitish, and his own leverage is unclear with the death of his father and the rise of his cousin, Raj Thackeray, whom many expect will eclipse Uddhav in the next election, and who has a good rapport with Modi to boot.  And the resignation of the vice-president of the Delhi unit of the BJP doesn’t compare even to Uddhav.

The one demographic that Mr. Modi will probably not be able to win over, whatever he says or does, is the Muslims (except probably in Gujarat, where they seem to have voted for him very strongly in the recent elections held there).  He is widely seen as the villain of 2002 by Muslims and, as a practical politician, he has calculated that nothing from him will win that vote in the upcoming elections, and so he doesn’t bother to apologize for 2002, despite innumerable demands to that effect.  

His refusal to apologize gives him an aura of being a Hindu “strongman” among the RSS  faithful, whereas apologizing for 2002 will likely not win him any more Muslim votes anyway.  This is similar to his strategy for Gujarat in 2002 where, immediately following the riots, he prevailed in the elections despite not having any support from the Muslim voters, because he could count on the Hindu votes.

Why are They Wasting Their Shaktis?

The obvious question, of course, is why the Congress, Mr. Advani, and others are wasting their Indra Shaktis at Ghatotkacha instead of Arjuna.  For this, the credit must go to Rajnath Singh, Modi, and the other top organizers of the BJP, who had the wisdom to declare Modi the frontrunner with one year to spare, even taking in their stride a revolt from one of the founding members of the BJP.

The foresight of the BJP top brass in making the leadership of the elections of 2014 clear at this early stage has forced their adversaries to use up their Shaktis prematurely.  It might not make sense for Nitish Kumar, for example, to accept Mr. Modi’s elevation without protest now and then complain 6 months later – it would be difficult, but it could have been done, and I regard Nitish Kumar’s not having done this and acting precipitately as a tactical mistake by the JD (U).  

The Congress probably jumped the gun by asking its stooge, the CBI, to press charges against the Gujarat police so soon – they could have caused much more damage by delaying this – but now the weapon has been discharged, and has lost its potency.  The Congress was probably feeling desperate, though, and their premature release was probably a result of their performance anxiety.  You have to feel their misery, though.  If they press the CBI charges now, they run the risk that the momentum will dissipate well before the elections (as it seems to have); if they wait too long to file the charge sheet, Modi might get so ahead in the polls that people may not care.  In addition, more scams might hit the UPA, which would make their own case much weaker.  That could explain why they were so hair-triggered about this.

Advani’s reason was probably slightly different.  If he wanted to be the face of the BJP for 2014, it was indeed a now-or-never moment for him.  He had to protest now – had Modi been accepted as the party face for 2014, it would have been very difficult for Advani to make the demand in 6 months time that he be named the PM candidate.  So his hand was forced, too.  As a side observation, since it did not happen now, it will never happen for Advani.

Concluding Thoughts

In light of the events of the last few months, it is now clear that Rajnath Singh achieved a master stroke by installing Narendra Modi as the chief of the electoral campaign of the BJP in 2014.  The pecking order in the BJP is clear now, and the troublemakers have been silenced.  The magnitude of this achievement cannot be underestimated.  Six months ago, the BJP seemed to be in chaos with so many contenders for the party leadership, and today the party is unified under Modi.  The BJP faces an uphill task in order to win 2014 convincingly.  Preliminary surveys like the ABP-Nielsen survey show that the BJP would win 206 seats if the elections were held today, but that is not sufficient for the BJP to hold power on its own terms.  

For the BJP to do better, it must sweep the Hindi heartland, and try to do as well as it possibly can in the remaining parts of the country.  An alliance with Jayalalitha, who looks set to sweep Tamil Nadu, is the obvious strategy of advantage to both parties.  But the achievement of winning the Hindi belt is far from easy and far from having been achieved.  To achieve this, Modi requires a dedicated and united team behind him, and having the dissensions out in the open and resolved (at least Advani cannot try his stunt again) at this early stage will contribute tremendously to enable to BJP to achieve this objective.  

Losing allies is not desirable, but this is a truism only if the allies add to the union, not when they detract from it.  A large machine with parts that don’t fit will not work as well as a smaller, well-oiled machine that is put together well and runs efficiently.  So I would say that the events of the past couple months have been extraordinarily positive for the BJP.  

Rajnath and Modi realized that you cannot achieve a historic victory with constant bickering in the party and with allies, and so decided to clarify things very early.  The same cannot be said for the UPA, as it still struggles to define whether Manmohan Singh (who is sure he is ready for a third term), Rahul Gandhi (who is not sure about anything, except that he likes Girish the painter – or the carpenter), or someone else will lead it in 2014.

I should have concluded with that, but I had second thoughts. You see, I suddenly realized I may have been wrong about the Congress.  It, too, may have read the Mahabharata and understood the lesson about using the Indra Shakti only once, but not enough to use that knowledge against its adversaries – similar to how someone can understand a language but not speak it.  For, it is clear that the Congress has used this concept, not to attack the BJP, but to protect itself.  

Manmohan Singh has clearly been playing the role of Ghatotkacha to the hilt, taking the brunt of every Indra Shakti from the opposition – the 2G astra, the CWG astra, the CoalGate astra, the RailGate astra, and so on, and will surely be destroyed by the cumulative effect of these astras, as Ghatotkacha was by the Indra Shakti – and being destroyed in this way, he can save the Congress’ Arjuna – Rahul Gandhi.  That would explain why the Congress is not in any hurry to declare who their PM candidate is – let Ghatotkacha absorb all the scam-astras before he dies, and at the last minute bring in Rahul baba as the PM candidate.  So, expect a coronation announcement for Pappu not earlier than 3 months before the elections.