The recent survey by Google India titled ‘Urban Indian Voters’ had thrown up some expected results, and quite a few very unexpected results.
Prime among the unexpected outcomes was the fact that despite the attempts by media and social media to make General Elections of 2014 a kind of US-style direct presidential fight between Modi and Rahul, only 11% of the urban voters said that prime ministerial candidate of a party will play an important role in their final voting decision.
What that means is obvious. Personalities are secondary, while issues are prime for an overwhelming majority of at least urban Indians.
The second most surprising result from the survey by Google was that around 42% of urban voters have still not decided on which front to vote for. That is a huge percentage of swing votes that can swing in either directions in the run-up to the elections.
Most leaders of either fronts may not be aware of such facts, but in recent weeks, it has become very clear that these messages are very obvious to at least Modi and Rahul. Because, both have started changing dramatically in their stands in recent days.
Gandhi Jayanti of 2013 would go down in history as the first time Narendra Modi dared to project a more inclusive, non-partisan vision for India. Speaking to students in Delhi, BJP’s Prime Minister candidate thundered, "I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is, pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya.” Toilets first, temples later.
What a welcome change from a Sangh Parivar leader who is alleged to have aided one of the largest genocides against Muslims in India, that left thousands in the minority community dead, raped, orphaned, looted, homeless, and terrorised, for around three months, ostensibly to avenge the killing of 58 kar sevaks who were returning after participating in a controversial temple building process. Coming from such a leader, it was a welcome change indeed.
But we have elements that won’t let a man change, a man improve. Controversial Viswa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia was up in arms swiftly, saying, “It is nothing short of an insult to the Hindu society.” Dr. Togadia even wanted BJP to condemn Modi’s statement.
How can it be an insult to Hindus? That is, an insult to Hindus alone? Devalaya need not be a Hindu temple alone, it can very well be a Mosque, a Church, a Gurudwara, a Jain temple, or a Buddhist shrine. But what if Modi had said, “pehle shauchalaya, phir temple, mosque, church, and gurudwara”.
Then not only Togadia, but Imams, Bishops, and others would have been up in arms. That is obviously why Modi refrained from saying so. Maybe a Modi of yesteryears would have said so. But this is the Modi of 2013, anointed to be Prime Minister. He should be more sensitive to minority communities. And for the first time ever, he took a step towards that, however timid that might be.
It can even be argued that Modi meant only Hindu temples, because it is in Sangh Parivar alone that a movement exist to rebuild ‘destroyed’ devalayas, even if it means destroying current mosques or churches. But how many Hindus actually want to pursue such volatile strategies is very obvious.
Though there have been serious exceptions like Gandhi’s assassination and Gujarat 2002, it is indisputable that the majority community of India is a most peace-loving one. Modi may be now showing that he is intelligent enough to distance himself from the temple-plank of Sangh Parivar, which has been producing diminishing returns since the last few elections.
Lastly, what is the need to read literally this great quote from Modi? Was he really comparing temples with toilets? Of course not. The comparison was just there for the effect, to elicit the impact. In that regard, this is a quote comparable to one from Swami Vivekananda regarding building mindfulness.
“Better to play football than read the Gita,” the renowned Swamiji had once said. Was he really comparing reading a scripture with playing a game? What did he really mean? For his thinking followers, it is obvious that what Vivekananda meant was the need for building physical stamina, mental alertness, and wholesome mindfulness. If developing mindfulness required playing an intensive sport like football, so be it. Don’t be content with just reading scriptures, as alertness may have to be physically and mentally practiced.
Wonder whether any Togadias were there to accuse Swamiji at that time. Anyway, even now there are many, as you can see from the Hindu hardline critics against this golden oldie from Vivekananda, in cyberspace. They wonder, among other things, why Swamiji had to mention just Gita, and not Quran or Bible.
How on earth would you pacify such literal readers? They just don’t realize that mindfulness is not only a Hindu ideal, but an ideal pursued by all great religions of this globe like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism etc. Mindfulness or alertness is essential to spirituality.
Similar is the case with Modi’s temple vs. toilet quote. Did he mean it literally? Not necessarily. He was merely echoing the ancient Hindu saying that “Manava Seva is Madhava Seva.” And Modi was targeting one of the most neglected manava sevas in this country.
If India had a social scourge from the time of Mahatma Gandhi to the time of Rahul Gandhi, it has been open defecation due to acute lack of toilets. And it is not just an issue of hygiene or perception alone.
Dean Spears, an economics PhD candidate at Princeton University and visiting researcher at the Delhi School of Economics, recently published a paper that reveals that open defecation contributes to stunting of children, which is a signal of malnutrition.
It was not only Togadia but Congress who found fault with Modi. However, one complaint from Congress was fair enough. As Digvijaya Singh was quick to point out, wasn’t it what Jairam Ramesh spoke about around six months back?
"No matter how many temples we go to, we are not going to get salvation. We need to give priority to toilets and cleanliness," Ramesh had said in April. Another great quote.
But didn’t BJP raise such a stink against Ramesh, back then? Why are they silent now when Modi says the same? That was fair enough an argument from Congress.
But then, others in Congress went overboard. Rajiv Shukla for example, who tried playing the Hindu card for a change. “Modi is not a Hindu leader. He has not even done anything for Hindus. He is not a leader of Hindus. His views are also entirely different. He is being projected like this to mislead people, mislead Hindus under a conspiracy to garner votes," was Shukla’s take.
Trying to beat Modi in his own game, eh? In which fool’s paradise are guys like Shukla living? Come on Congress men, give credit where it is due. Modi said the right thing, this time around.
Anyway, coming back to the crux of the issue, why did Modi suddenly change? Any astute observer of politics can realize why. Just one week prior, someone called Rahul Gandhi had opened his young mouth for the first time. Proving all his detractors massively wrong, Rahul Gandhi had gate-crashed into mainstream political discourse in the classiest way imaginable.
He just grabbed the microphone from spokesman Ajay Maken who was defending a controversial ordinance and said, “My view is that this ordinance is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away. It is high-time that all political parties - mine and others - stop making these kind of compromises.” Yet another great quote.
What he rubbished as nonsense was, of course, an ordinance that his all-powerful mom, the party’s core group, and the cabinet, had recently approved. In one stroke he proved that he has more ethics than not only Sonia Gandhi, P Chidambaram, and, of course, the likes of Kapil Sibal who can defend the indefensible through infinite articulation, but that he has more ethics than the so-called benchmarks in ethics like AK Antony and Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Because, they had compromised and allowed this ordinance to save the skin of seriously convicted legislators, but Rahul had single-handedly called out that the king was naked. And it was on Rahul’s insistence that the ordinance was subsequently withdrawn.
Even Pranab would have coolly signed it on into law, if the Cabinet would have pressed him. That was undoubtedly a big win for Rahul.
Of course, the BJP was quick to criticise it as a gimmick, but the fact is that whether it is a gimmick or not, Rahul was right on the nation’s pulse. Just like how Modi is right on the nation’s pulse when he says toilets first, temples later. Like Congress, the BJP too has to learn to give credit when it is due.
Is this the beginning of a new virtuous cycle of one-upmanship in proposing radical changes between Rahul and Modi, rather than the usual vicious cycle of mindless criticism between Congress and BJP?
Reports suggest that after Modi scored an equalizer through toilets-before-temple, Rahul is planning his next goal, to shoot down a proposed watering-down amendment to the game changing RTI Act, which has the tacit approval of both Congress and BJP.
Anyway, India would definitely love this virtuous cycle to gather speed.
It is easy to trash Modi’s and Rahul’s recent positions as mere gimmicks, but if we do so, we would be doing great injustice to ourselves. Because, real leaders of people are always eager to receive people’s feedback. That is why it is essential to jeer each leader’s bad stands on issues, and cheer each of their good stands, irrespective of who they are. Through such feedback, we mould them into better leaders.
The perfect example of this was recently visible in the radically different positions taken by 81-year old scholar Dr. UR Ananthamurthy and 40-year old politician Jagan Mohan Reddy with regard to Modi. Murthy doesn’t want to live in an India where Modi would be PM, but Reddy’s stand was that, “I appreciate Modi, but secularism is a must.” Murthy’s outburst is understandable but ineffective, but what a stunning but constructive message Reddy put across! That is what feedback is all about.
Will Rahul once and for all end his family’s stranglehold on Congress and make it a cleaner party? Will Modi once and for all, apologize for Gujarat 2002, and end his animosity towards Muslims? Both are highly unlikely. But if they are at least trying, we should be cheering, for leading them in the right direction.