Comparisons are odious, all the more so when they are made between politicians who espouse radically differing ideologies. But there’s a lot in common between the way Narendra Modi and Lalu Yadav reach out to their audiences. On home turf, both are peerless communicators.
<b1>In the high voltage campaign that closed on Friday, Modi’s way with crowds in Gujarat was eerily reminiscent of Lalu’s in Bihar. Lalu used to direct policemen to allow people to get past the security barricades and closer to himself on the stage. Then he would embark on a dialogue with his listeners rather than a speech: pose questions, crack jokes and tear into his rival’s plank with a flourish.
Modi is much the same. Is Gujarat safe in the hands of a party that had its office vandalised by disappointed ticket-seekers, he asked. (This happened at the state Congress headquarters for two days when poll candidates were announced.) “No, never,” roared back the crowd.
While their styles are similar, the content of their speeches is obviously a different matter.
The RJD chief is a staunch defender of secularism. Modi in contrast played on popular fears through the campaign, depicting the Congress as weak-kneed in standing up to terror. The waving arms, the clenched fists, the pauses, the changes of tone — all cast a hypnotic spell. The crowd seemed completely convinced, clapping furiously in agreement with Modi’s wily spin on Sohrabuddin and Afzal Guru.
The underlying message was that while both the men were terrorists, the former, in Gujarat, had been eliminated, but the latter had not despite having been given the death sentence by the courts. A combination of a misplaced obsession with security, patriotic fervor and subtle communalism is what sustains the Modi persona, painstakingly cultivated to override caste allegiances and sway the majority on religious lines, specially the middle class in the cities.
How large is this middle class? Yamal Vyas, BJP spokesman, estimated it at 35-40 per cent of the state’s population. It is the class Modi has pampered.
It is towns and cities which have got the lion’s share of power, and the Narmada waters. Policemen look the other way when young bikers ride without helmets on, despite a court diktat for them to do so. Even prohibition norms have been relaxed in the SEZ areas in this traditionally Gandhian and dry state.
“This is a stark contrast to rural Saurashtra where authorities have been using a questionable regulation to jail thousands of farmers for allegedly pilfering power,” said journalist-activist Digant Oza.
Oza maintains that 72 of Gujarat’s 182 constituencies are largely urban or semi-urban — and in all of them, Modi is still a hero.
In contrast, the Congress reached voters through localised initiatives and mass rallies. Against Modi’s 170 meetings across 150 constituencies, Sonia addressed 10 rallies where attendance was above 1 lakh. Rahul’s road shows in Surat and Vadodhara also drew huge crowds.
The people the Congress attracted were a different lot from the pro-Modi middle class: the rural poor, the slum dwellers, the adivasis and those castes alienated by the Modi’s treatment of regional satraps like Keshubhai Patel.
It remains to be seen which section of Gujarat will win the ballot box battle.