New Delhi being the highly-strung, power city it is, driven by sound bites and contrived acrimony, it is easy to presume political rivals are sworn enemies. The hostility that political and media elites in this city display when it comes to Narendra Modi, for instance, is extraordinary. No other chief minister will be threatened with assassination by the Lashkar-e-Toiba or a similar group and win not sympathy but smirks from the capital's opinion establishment.
Stepping out to cover and observe politics in the rest of India, one encounters a very different landscape. In Gujarat, for instance, with some exceptions Modi's opponents in the Congress don't hate him or froth at the mouth at the mention of his name--except in the presence of visiting journalists from the national capital, before whom they are obliged to perform an exaggerated act. Indeed, in private conversation, Congress functionaries have acknowledged his administrative achievements, while disagreeing with aspects of his politics.
As it happens the worst abuse for Modi, and not always in off-the-record chats, comes from BJP and VHP has-beens-- including from a self-appointed RSS ideologue who wanted to promote his son's political career and saw Modi as an obstacle. Many of these people are well past they sell-by date. Yet in a polity where nobody retires--and in a party, the BJP, where overstaying your welcome is now a matter of habit--a hard message is never easy to accept. No wonder many such old-timers, Keshubhai Patel among them, blame Modi for their irrelevance.
Keshubhai Patel was Gujarat's chief minister on two occasions, starting in 1995. A Patel strongman from Saurashtra with a base among groundnut farmers, he was the first BJP chief minister of Gujarat. Today, he has formed a breakaway party and threatens to play spoiler in 40 of the state assembly's 182 seats. In reality, he is scarcely the force he once was and will end up humiliating himself.
Keshubhai was an in-house dissident in 2007 as well. He campaigned against Modi in Sangh circles but it all got nowhere. Finally, on the day Modi was sworn in at the packed Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, Keshubhai swallowed his pride, walked up to Modi and congratulated him with a Namaste. Those who watched the scene hoped bygones would be bygones. Keshubhai had accepted Modi's triumph and his own retirement it appeared.
They thought too soon. Five years later, Keshubhai turned up again. He blames Modi for his removal as chief minister in October 2001, but quite forgets that it was his governance failure in the period following the earthquake of January that year that signalled the end of his effective career. The BJP was headed for defeat in the election of 2002. It was only Modi - helped no doubt by the polarisation that followed the violence of 2002 - who saved the party.
For Modi's critics in the media and the NGO circuit, clutching straws and desperate to attack him for some reason or the other, Keshubhai has suddenly metamorphosed into a giant grassroots patriarch who was wronged by destiny. This astonishing conclusion bears little resemblance to reality.
I once asked Modi about the BJP's saboteur brigade. Elliptical as all good politicians are, he avoided a direct answer. A few minutes later, he told me how much he admired Madhavsinh Solanki, the 1980s-era Congress chief minister of Gujarat. I asked him why. "Ever since his son, Bharatbhai, has taken charge of the Congress in Gujarat," Modi explained, "Madhavsinh Solanki has gracefully accepted his time is over. He doesn't interfere in factional politics and intrigues, doesn't give interviews. He sits at home and read books. When there is a party function, he comes and sits quietly towards the side."
Bharatsinh Solanki was the Gujarat Congress chief in 2007, and is now minister of state for railways. He has not been able to defeat Modi, but many still see him as a potential face for the Congress in the future. He is fortunate in that he has to battle no fires in his backyard; his father has left him to do things his way and make his own mistakes. As for Keshubhai, at 84 he's only a year Madhavsinh Solanki's junior. Unlike his old opponent from the Congress, he doesn't know when to fade away.
(The writer is a political analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)