Politics is a strange game. At times, an adversary’s belligerence becomes a boon for the protagonist’s stature and appeal. That’s what happened in the 2007 polls when Sonia Gandhi collared Narendra Modi for the post-Godhra pogrom.
The Congress chief called him a merchant of death — maut ka saudagar. The Gujarat CM latched on to the phrase to polarise voters, weaving, in the process, the story of his second electoral success in the state where the Congress hasn’t tasted power for a decade-and-a-half. He also used the opportunity to the hilt to bracket himself with her national persona.
Her inaugural election speech at Rajkot on Wednesday was the work of a person left wiser by experience. It was so crafted as to prevent a repeat of 2007 that saw Modi turning the vote into one that was for or against him.
Sonia also sought to pick up stake in the Gujarati pride invoked so often by Modi. She attributed the state’s progress to their entrepreneurial prowess and the foundations for development Nehru laid by envisaging and naming after Vallabhbhai Patel the Sardar Sarovar Dam over the Narmada.
Not sparing the CM’s record of governance, she refrained from naming him even once during her address.
There was no reference to the 2002 riots, the court judgment on the Naroda Patiya killings or the BJP’s claims of a ‘clean chit’ to Modi by the SIT whose report is yet to find judicial endorsement. Not that these issues aren’t part of the Congress’s electoral discourse. “They are dealt with locally by the state leadership,” said AICC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry.
Another party functionary interpreted Modi’s provocative attacks on Sonia (over who paid her medical bills) and his description of Rahul Gandhi as an international leader who could even contest from Italy, as attempts to draw them into a verbal duel. “But that won’t happen. We will respond to such diatribes locally and from other tiers of our party,” he said.
The Congress’s strategy obviously is to deny Modi a national pedestal. But in Gujarat he stands taller than campaigners from other parties, including the BJP. “The Congress looks better prepared and Modi a bit rattled. But the gap’s there,” said an Ahmedabad-based journalist. He felt BJP rebel Keshubhai Patel could damage Modi in Saurashtra and north Gujarat in cahoots with the CM’s detractors in Sangh parivar outfits.
But even the most optimistic among Modi’s rivals concede his hold over the 50-odd urban seats in the 182-member assembly. They admit the Congress lacks a leader to match his mastery over electoral politics, very much part of which is his none-too-subtle projection as a prime ministerial candidate.
Predicating his elevation as PM on the outcome of polls suits Modi’s goal; converge as it would his personal ambitions with Gujarati pride. The Congress’s best option to negate any such build-up would be to exploit anti-incumbency in Saurashtra, the 40-odd seats in tribal areas and urban slums where its promise of low-cost housing for women has got a huge response.
If you can’t defeat him, contain him. Will the mantra work?