When British High Commissioner James Bevan flew to Ahmedabad this October to meet Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, it raised eyebrows. Bevan’s visit marked the end of a decade-long boycott of the state that the UK government imposed in the wake of the 2002 riots.
The British decision to “reengage” Gujarat began with the presentation of a bouquet of flowers to the saffron leader. Bevan then reiterated Britain’s desire to strengthen economic ties with India saying: “If you want to do that you can’t ignore Gujarat, one of the most important states of India.” Put differently, it implied, you can’t ignore the man who you think might become India’s next PM.
“Modi as PM” has been a proposition since the Hindu hardliner won a second term with an impressive victory in 2007, riding on a development plank that projected him as a leader who could deliver when the rest of the political system had failed. But each time, the idea got nipped in the bud by his own party. The 62-year-old leader never talks about his prime ministerial ambitions, but quietly endorses whenever the suggestion is made by others, both within and outside the BJP.
Paradoxically, the “Modi as PM” chorus ties well with Gujarati provincialism — a key strand in the saffron leader’s propaganda, at a time when Hindutva and the development plank (the combination of which is sometimes called Moditva) appear to be losing their appeal.
Modi’s challenge, however, is not to win the elections next week, but win them in a manner he believes will make him a formidable contender for the nation’s top job. That means not just securing a tally better than past elections, but offering a grander vision that works beyond Gujarat.
Can he do it?
It is perhaps too early to write off the enigma called Narendra Damodardas Modi, who has few parallels in India’s political history. However, many believe his politics is “self-limiting” and that he may have already peaked. By current estimates, no party is expected to win a majority in 2014 to form the next government in New Delhi. It will be a coalition which will need the support of regional satraps, many of whom would do nothing to alienate Muslim voters in their constituencies, said Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based social historian.
Modi has yet to wipe the stains of the 2002 riots that left at least 1,200 people dead, mostly Muslims. He is alleged to have played a role in the violence. In the past decade, his government has done little to benefit the Muslims and his party has not picked a single Muslim candidate for the elections although Muslims make up about 9% of the state electorate. Moreover, what has worked with the Gujarati middle class may not necessarily work with its counterpart in other parts of India. “Absence of any social renaissance or a strong labour movement has meant the middle class here is more communal than the rest of the country. Modi has been able to take advantage of that,” said Sebastian Morris, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management.
Despite being a poster boy of Hindutva, Modi doesn’t enjoy the support of the RSS which “considers him to be an ambitious upstart who needs to be reined in.”
The cracks are showing
The hurdles for Modi in his own backyard are no less. “He will become the CM again, but not with the aura he once had,” said Yagnik, adding people of Gujarat no longer hold him in the awe they once did. It’s evident at election rallies. His trademark digs at opponents no longer trigger roaring cheers and people complain he is becoming repetitive and predictable.
“You can see young boys mimicking Modi,” said Aslam Cyclewala, a Congress party office bearer in Surat that goes to polls in the first phase on Dec 13. The second phase will be held on Dec 17 and results declared on Dec 20. “There is a lot of undercurrent. You will see it when the results come out.” Also for the first time, “people are questioning his achievements on the development front,” said YK Alagh, a former union power minister who is now the chancellor of Central University of Gujarat.
Modi was able to seize the opportunities that came with the national economic boom coinciding with his tenure. Post-boom, the cracks started showing. The current slump has hit Gujarat’s export-oriented small manufacturers hard and a drought highlighted the neglect of agriculture by the regime. “In some ways, the sense of deprivation has got heightened. Very difficult to tell how the cookie will fall,” said Alagh.
But the biggest setback for Modi has been the rebellion by his one-time mentor, former CM Keshubhai Patel who walked out of BJP to float his own party — the Gujarat Parivartan Party. Patel may not own many seats, but followers of his powerful Leuva Patel community, who make up 15% of the electorate, and sections of the RSS will ensure GPP spoils Modi’s chances in at least 30 of the 182 seats. This time, Modi hasn’t risked dropping any sitting MLAs as he had in 2007 to placate anti-imcumbency. “In the past decade, nobody within Gujarat dared challenge Modi. Keshubhai’s rebellion is the first but may not be the last,” said Yagnik. The verdict for 2014 may well remain as unclear after next week’s elections in Gujarat as it was before.
Dispatches from the campaign trail
Modi, a tech-savvy rock star
The star campaigner does 5-6 public election rallies daily, crisscrossing the state. He mostly uses a chopper to hop from one venue to another, remaining air borne for at least 5 hours a day. This election, he will be addressing about 100 rallies. But that’s not enough, so the tech-savvy saffron leader, known for putting new media to its best use in campaigns, has turned to 3-D holographic projection technology. Used mostly by rock stars and celebrities in the West, this technology is different from traditional video-conferencing. A special stage is erected to project Modi’s image at the venue of the gathering in such a way that the audience feels he is speaking before them. This allows him to address multiple rallies at the same time.
You love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. Few Indian politicians get as much media attention as Modi. So when it’s election time in Gujarat, it’s not unusual to expect a journalistic seize of Ahmedabad. Approximately 400-500 journalists, including many from overseas, are believed to be camping in the state. The result: hotel and cab rates are heading northward. Things turned worse after Election Commission observers arrived and forcefully hired most cabs in the city. So much so that the High Court on Thursday took up a PIL challenging the EC action.
White is not his colour
By his own admission, Modi keeps a wardrobe of 25 half-sleeved kurtas. He does not like them to be white in colour, apparently because it makes people look old and like politicians who people tend not to trust. During a Google Plus Hangout session earlier this year, he had to switch to short-sleeved kurtas because they were easier to wash and he had to wash his clothes himself for a long time. He prefers a trimmed beard and short hair, which he combs in a manner that doesn’t show his balding forehead. However, lately he has grown his hair long. He is believed to have a collection of expensive watches. During foreign trips or meetings with business delegations, a bandhgala is his preferred attire.
Modi is a hit among Gujarati middle-class women. When it comes to the fairer sex, Modi believes in direct contact. He regularly organises events for women and has launched several schemes to harness entrepreneurial skills. In 2007, he fielded 22 women candidates of whom 15 won. Once asked what makes him so popular among women, Modi said he saw in their admiration a motherly love. “I am like Shivaji and every woman would love to be mother of Shivaji,” he said. That may indeed be true. It is also true that he is the most successful “brahmachari” in the state.
This story was originally published on August 8, 2012