Sonia Gandhi was in Solapur in April 2004, campaigning for Ujwalla Shinde, wife of then Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, when she gave me an enduring lesson on why abuse by rivals was the best indicator of one’s potential success.
I had risen from a bad bout of jaundice and typhoid-combined, I remember, and so was not up to gallivanting around town as I usually did at election campaigns, long after the political meetings were over for the day and I had filed my copy for the night. As other colleagues went to town, I sat morose and woebegone in my hotel room, idly surfing television.That’s when I caught Narendra Modi uttering the foulest of abuses for Sonia Gandhi. The more mentionable of these was his description of Sonia as a ‘Jersey Cow’ and Rahul Gandhi as her ‘hybrid’ bachhada (calf).
I was appalled and sat up in outrage. Even without having reason to admire Sonia Gandhi then, I thought Modi could have been rather more, well, to use the BJP’s own terminology, sabhya (decent) and more full of their own shuchita (cleanliness) and samrasta (politeness) as he took on political rivals.
Sonia was scheduled to hold a press briefing the next morning at the Solapur airport before her departure and I made sure that I got a prime standing spot (which was just opposite her) to see if she caught all the nuances.
As I was close enough to look into her eyes, I saw the immense hurt when I asked her for a response. She even flinched a little at the question. But then I had the first glimpse into her political acumen and wondered if this was indeed the clueless foreign bahu that the BJP was so dismissive of. I could see her swallow the hurt and muster all her resources as she replied, “Oh, I do not worry about such abuse. In fact, I welcome it. It means I must be doing something right. So my answer to your question is. ‘Good! Let him abuse me as much as he likes!’ For, that abuse only means we are winning.”
It was no surprise, then, that at that election, Modi lost half the seats in Gujarat and AB Vajpayee his job as Prime Minister. “If even Gujarat would not stand by me…” I had heard Vajpayee grumble in his first reaction to the BJP’s defeat in 2004. Gujarat gave the Congress 12 seats. And the Congress, as everyone knows, came to power with only eight-odd seats more than the BJP.
The BJP has long dismissed Rahul as a callow calf but now even this mild-mannered son of Sonia Gandhi is getting the saffronists’ goat (even LK Advani’s, but that’s another story). Obviously, the barb about being a government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich has got under Modi’s skin. For all that Modi has screamed in the past about Sonia’s foreign origins and Rahul’s mixed lineage, he does not have answers for why he wears phoren while Rahul’s entire attire is completely Indian-made; why his sunglasses are Cartier (French) and why even his clothes are not home-spun khadi or Indian cotton like Rahul’s but fine silk or finer cotton from China and Hong Kong. And this is a leader of a party which stands for everything Indian?
Like a political analyst from Gujarat told me, “If Rahul were the fish in the aquarium, he would not be Indian in his tastes and clothes. Modi is the one who fosters a desire for the exotic and foreign and so, of course, the barb hurts. Just look at Gujarat today — it is all about Nanos and Tatas, Ambanis and Mittals. So he must keep up. Where does the poor man stand in the middle of any of this?”
It has taken years for Modi to work out that he cannot hope to survive with the tag of a killer sticking to him — his attempt to appoint a Muslim police chief is a move to correct that perception and get himself a secular image. He may or may not succeed in making Gujarat 2002 go away (I tend to think not, given the manner in which the Supreme Court is determined to bring justice to the victims of that massacre). But he is now facing something more insurmountable: a pro-rich image in a country where the majority of the voters are poor.
And with very little time to correct that perception, he resorts to the classic BJP-ishtyle retort: abuse as the best form of defence. But doesn’t India begin to somewhat cease shining in the process?
I thought Modi knew.