The campaign to project Narendra Modi as the BJP’s future prime minister has taken some interesting turns. First, the Supreme Court has ordered a probe into Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots. Second, the Congress has been strangely reluctant to raise this issue or to call for Modi’s head.
Third, the Rajnath Singh camp within the BJP has hit back. It recognises that the subtext of the campaign is to denigrate Rajnath’s own position. And finally, more BJP leaders have signaled their support for Modi suggesting that they regard his ascension as inevitable.
The Supreme Court order is significant because it suggests that Modi owes the country an explanation. By naming various officials of the Gujarat Police and administration along with Modi, the court has suggested that the oft-repeated allegation that the Gujarat government deliberately let the mobs run riot also needs to be probed.
The court order is not, by any means, a conviction. But at a moral level, and at the level of propriety, it is at least as damning as the charges against Jagdish Tytler.
You would expect the Congress to now go for Modi. You would expect it to ask how the BJP feels about a prime ministerial candidate whose role in mass murder is being probed by the Supreme Court. It could even ask for Modi to step aside till the investigations are complete.
Instead, the Congress has played down the issue, refusing to ask for Modi’s resignation and not saying much about the court’s order — a startling contrast with the way in which the BJP went for Tytler.
The Congress’s argument is that the court order may actually help Modi. He could use it to polarise the electorate, to raise Hindu-Muslim tensions and to project himself again as a Hindutva hardliner. Better therefore to play it down.
This is a risky strategy. A chief minister can afford to polarise the electorate. But a prime ministerial contender cannot afford to do so. If Modi adopts his old Muslim-bashing persona, it might actually scare away moderate voters, terrify potential allies, and embarrass the BJP.
Besides, Modi has spent the last two years trying to make people forget about the Gujarat riots, and projecting himself as a champion of development. Would he really want to go back to his old communally divisive persona?
One indication of how the BJP feels might be its response to the court order. Arun Jaitley offered the standard defence but after that the party tried to play it down. Few BJP leaders wanted to discuss it and the party’s C team of spokesmen was dispatched to TV studios to make the usual noises.
Partly, this reflects a division within the BJP. The Rajnath camp, which is paranoid about Arun Jaitley, sees the campaign to promote Modi as a Jaitley ploy facilitated by the former law minister’s vast access in the media.
So, Sushma Swaraj — no pal of Jaitley’s and a PM candidate herself — went public with her denunciation of the campaign. Rajnath’s supporters sung their man’s praises. And even Jaitley, in an effort to deflect the criticism, declared that this was ‘a media campaign’ — which, at one level, it certainly was.
But within the BJP, the conviction that Modi will be the next leader is growing. Even Yashwant Sinha, one of the BJP’s secular liberals, declared on Monday that, “Modi has all the qualities needed to be PM,” adding, “India would be lucky to have him as prime minister.”
So, the Modi juggernaut rolls on, nevertheless.