He was once the man who would be king. Today, he is not even the man who would be kingmaker. I am speaking of Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister and arguably the most charismatic BJP leader in India today. Yet, as the assembly elections come to a close, no one is even asking where Modi is or why he has not been put to good use to pull in votes for the party.
Ardent Modi-baiters will argue that the BJP has wisely kept him in the stables because the taint of the Gujarat riots is so overwhelming that he will scare away potential allies, indeed alienate certain votebanks. Which brings me to the question, why is Modi so synonymous with the ghastly riots even 10 years after they have taken place? What has the BJP done to take care of what could have been its matchwinner after the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee?
Whether you like Modi or not, he has considerable achievements to his credit in his home state. Industrial leviathans are queuing up at his door eager to cash in on his single-window clearance for schemes. He is the poster boy for NRI Gujaratis, though their adopted countries may not give him a visa. He may be authoritarian but he knows that the business of Gujarat is business. His administration is clean by our rather lax standards. He is a workaholic who has not taken a holiday in the last 20 years and goes to office seven days a week. He has no known vices — I can see the secularists rolling up their sleeves — barring a penchant for ‘fashionable’ clothes and expensive watches. Tailormade to project as the man who could rule India and make it credible India instead of the rather silly incredible India, don’t you think?
But so far, the BJP does not seem to be looking around for a desi version of Saatchi and Saatchi to market Modi. In fact, it seems loath to even project him as a future national leader barring the occasional kite-flying by the gaffe-prone Nitin Gadkari. The party which prides itself on having the smarts, which projects itself as one in which merit not dynasty counts, should surely have begun grooming Modi long ago. It should have enlisted a bevy of advisers from its own ranks and outside, and there are enough hangers-on, to have given him an image makeover many times over.
Instead of the rather bizarre sadbhavana missions, they could have told Modi that he should have made grand gestures, apologised for the break down of law and order, to use those terms loosely, which resulted in the terrible loss of life and property all those years ago. The state administration could have paid compensation to those who suffered, brought back those who had to flee, yes, and horrible though it sounds, project more secular credentials. This would have given Modi a more all-India appeal. Or at least, it would have blunted the criticism against him.
It does not strike me that the party is not up to the task. After all, long before Modi was a gleam in our political eye, it was the BJP’s alleged iron man, LK Advani, who undertook a rath yatra before the fall of the Babri Masjid which triggered off cataclysmic riots. Yet, the party smartly projected the infinitely more moderate AB Vajpayee as its prime ministerial candidate while quietly scrubbing Advani clean despite the communal taint and unproven allegations of involvement in a hawala scam.
After the rath was put under covers, Advani became deputy prime minister and would have been prime minister had fate, mind you not unacceptability, not robbed him of the chance. The party was in full force behind him. In Modi’s case, since the riots he seems to have been left to his own devices. He has ably put Gujarat back on the rails economically. But, the accolades for him have come from outside his party. In fact, instead of giving his stamp of approval to the dynamic Modi, even Advani has sought to project his own availability for the post should the NDA win the next elections.
The party has not once pulled up its allies for their open shunning of Modi. In other words, it has left the horse that could win it the Derby to canter around the paddock, an object of awe for those looking at it from afar. Part of this reluctance to build Modi’s image could be due to the fear that he could prove uncontrollable. But, this is not good enough reason to ignore the only locomotive which can pull the party through.
This leads me to wonder whether the BJP really has any alternative strategy, whether its glory days ended with the exit of Vajpayee. In its posters even for these assembly elections, Vajpayee features larger-than-life, though he has not been seen in public for years now. Most parties have showcased one or other leader citing the ‘there is no alternative’ factor (TINA). In the BJP’s case, this seems to mean ‘there is no Ahmedabad’.