Anxiety of Modi-baiters The Congress's diatribes against the BJP's poll campaign chief may prove counterproductive. Unless elections are brought forward, it's still some eight months from voting day. Nevertheless the contours of the Lok Sabha contest are becoming apparent. Narendra Modi has emerged as the central figure of the election and the BJP chief, Rajnath Singh, has all but named him as the party's prime ministerial candidate. Gradually, voter sentiment is lining up behind Modi or against him. The Congress is mindful of this and is attacking him in a manner that seems to betray panic. Significantly, smaller parties that at one time entertained hopes of a third front revival are beginning to reconcile themselves to a bipolar reckoning. What is the evidence of this and what are the implications of such a campaign? Each time Modi so much as opens his mouth, several Congress ministers jump. If there is a method to this, it is puzzling. After all, in overreacting to your principal adversary you only end up giving him more publicity. As such, the Congress is building up Modi as the politician the party is most worried about and the one who represents the most trenchant anti-Congress position. The ruling party may feel it is damaging the Gujarat chief minister, but equally there could be the argument that it is adding to his name recognition. Further, behind the noise and fury, the Congress is acutely conscious of the absence of its commander. A clutch of smaller parties, whether the CPM or the JD(U), are now mimicking the Congress in its assault on Modi. They have eschewed any attempt at product differentiation and are presenting Modi and the BJP as the principal adversary. Implicitly, they are hitching their wagons to the Congress engine. Perhaps there is logic to this. Both the CPM in West Bengal and the JD(U) in Bihar face a tough election. The ability of the Congress to cut into Trinamool Congress votes and to help mobilise Muslims for the JD(U) in case of an alliance is something the junior parties sense. Given this, a dilution of any criticism of the UPA government is inevitable for the CPM and the JD(U). This is suggestive of another, parallel reality. At least in the 350-odd seats where the BJP and the Congress compete or have enough votes to play spoilers, two oppositional motivations are crystallising. For some, the priority is to stop Modi becoming prime minister, even if this requires compromising with the Congress. For others, the priority is to unseat the Cong-ress and punish the UPA government. If this means overlooking previous misgivings about Modi, so be it. There is no data to back this, but anecdotal evidence and poli-tical assessments indicate positions are hardening around these motivations - stop Modi or remove the Congress. It is possible a majority of voters have already made up their minds. However, one caveat needs to be entered here and it concerns the scaremongering the Congress has resorted to in exaggerating the odd Modi sentence or phrase or in painting him as a hate figure. This is a decidedly double-edged tactic. Obviously it is aimed at the Muslim vote in primarily Uttar Pradesh, the 80 seats of which are crucial to this election. However, Muslim voters - like any other voters - will back only a viable candidate and not waste their franchise. If the Congress's attempts at ersatz emotionalism backfire and end up solidifying urban middle classes and Brahmins - constituencies it shares with the BJP - behind Modi, it may find the Uttar Pradesh Muslim turning to the Samajwadi Party instead. Where would this leave the Congress? Finally, what precisely is Modi's appeal? Despite the throw-away reference to the "burqa of secularism" in Pune or to the 2002 riots in a recent interview, the bulk of his narrative has been focussed on development issues and the UPA's disappointing record. Those who lament, almost in the manner of a pre-recorded message, that he is a "polariser" and lacks Atal Bihari Vajpayee's "inclusiveness" and "refinement", are missing the point. Modi's persona is different and the popular mood in 2013 is far removed from 1998, when Vajpayee was elected prime minister. In the mid-1990s, the Cong-ress was in decline and minus an organising pillar - the Nehru-Gandhi family being in self-imposed exile from electoral politics. Two short-lived third front governments had left India fretting. Vajpayee won support as a picture of reassurance, the gentle patriarch who would steady a rocky ship and restore predictability and calm. Expectations from Modi are not identical. He is addressing not a placidly anxious electorate but an angry and restless one, especially young voters who are more numerous than they've ever been and blame the Congress for killing the India growth story. Modi's would-be voters are not looking for smug sameness and one of several mutually interchangeable figures in New Delhi. Rather, they see in him an outsider and comfort breaker. A certain abrasiveness or pugnaciousness is built into this pitch, but these are only the external trappings. Modi is gambling contemporary society has a hunger and a sense of hope and aspiration that conventional candidates and election machines are not addressing. If he is right, he could end up not just winning in 2014 but structurally reordering Indian politics. Anxiety of Modi-baiters - The Times of India *********************************** As I had said earlier, too much of focus on Modi is only assisting Modi.