Far from the madding crowds of the cities, particularly of western India where Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi seems to be making waves, I have been able to take refreshing breaths of fresh air in the villages of south India where very few people have been touched by the BJP's PM candidate. Many in this part do not even know who he is, many others do not care what he stands for. Awareness about him seems to exist only among those who watch English TV channels but even many among them are indifferent to his prospects.
I am no pollster but this reality check was necessary to bring home the fact that, as some of my friends in the BJP have often told me, the party does not have a presence in at least 300 Lok Sabha seats and perhaps even Modi's overpowering presence elsewhere in India cannot change that indifference.
I left Bombay for a more than week-long travel plan soon after Modi's rally and when I spoke about his numerous faux pas, including the one about his belief that Maharashtra had nine more chief ministers than really have been on the record, to even those fiercely interested in politics, the historical blunders drew some laughs but no great outrage unlike how most of the rest of us in the north have reacted. While this is no scientific analysis, it has set me wondering if my colleagues are not right about Modi--that it is not the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi which will determine the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls but the southern and eastern states. Individually, they may be small but together pull a lot of weight in the Lok Sabha. If that were to be true then Modi has his task cut out in the next few months even when it comes to speaking to the people of these states in a medium they would reasonably understand.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also leaves them cold. If they warm up to any national leader, it is Sonia Gandhi. They are wondering if the Congress president will make it to the office of the next PM. So I wonder if Modi's supporters are barking up the wrong tree by pitting him against the son when the mother continues to be the more formidable of the two leaders and perhaps, against all expectations, could turn the tide in favour of her party.
Modi clearly needs a better PR agency to make his presence felt across other parts of the country where they seem to have not heard of or be impressed by his Gujarat model of development. The south particularly sees so much more of both development and corruption that one needs better imagination to hold the attention of the people over such campaign issues. I have heard it said here that one particular southern leader who was part of the NDA withdrew all the funds from the health department paid into the government's employees insurance scheme that there was nothing left for nearly two years for government employees to fall back on in that particular state. How that could have happened without the then finance minister's complicity I do not know but then the same man and his party returned to government with the UPA and everything seemed to have been papered over in the interest of coalition politics.
I believe the only case that might come back to haunt the Congress would be the Adarsh scam because this is the only one where Congressmen are openly seen to be allegedly bending rules for personal gratification--every other scam is by an ally including the NCP and the DMK and that's how they see it at least in some parts of southern India.
India is a very different country south of the Vindhyas and sometimes it might be not such a bad thing to think so differently.
(The views expressed are personal.)