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Modi: Taciturn tactician speaks directly to the people

Trailing Modi for nearly 48 hours, visiting his rallies, speaking to his aides: the idea was to probe if he wore anything beneath his cloak of extremism.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2002 01:54 IST


Trailing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for nearly 48 hours, visiting his rallies, speaking to his aides and observing the man from close quarters: the idea was to scratch the veneer and probe whether the man wore anything beneath his cloak of extremism.

For otherwise it is difficult to chronicle the true character of a man obssessed with his image, a man determined to introduce a chapter of intolerance in the secular Constitution of India. “It’s not me who wants it, it’s the people of Gujarat. The collective pride of five crore Gujaratis has been insulted. I am fighting a cause on their behalf,” remains the pet refrain of a man looking for democratic legitimacy.

Modi refused to play ball and stymied efforts to accompany him. He had relaxed the rules for rehearsed stage shows during the Gaurav Yatra by allowing correspondents to ‘witness’ the multitudes who thronged his rath. Not anymore.

To understand the diffidence we gleaned through a day in the CM’s life. Its 6:00 am at his sprawling Gandhinagar residence. Modi has woken up and prepares for his medical check-up.

Physiotherapy and headlines

Ever since Haren Pandya challenged his leadership and threatened to demolish his invulnerability, Modi has been showing signs of a weak heart. “The check-up and light physiotherapy lasts for close to an hour,” informs an aide. Enough time for a team of state information officers to cull out every written word printed on Modi, enlarge it and present it before him. “He likes to know what is being written about him, even if it’s a paragraph in a newspaper. That’s why, despite receiving a dozen newspapers in the morning, this exercise is mandatory,” the aide adds.

As an result of his heyday as BJP spokesperson in Delhi, Modi is on a ‘first-name-basis’ with scores of senior journalists both in the national and vernacular press. A useful trait, aides confirm, when a dent in his ‘image’ needs to be rectified.

The morning papers throw up nothing uncomfortable, with most lead stories centered on the Sonia and Advani rallies elsewhere in the state. But just as Modi is through leafing through, an advertisement in Gujarat Today catches his eyes.

He begins reading it closely with intent when the wireless crackles “CM House… CM House… Helicopter ready… over.” A Bell helicopter rented out by the Escorts Group is ready to take Modi to Kheroj village in Khedbramha constituency, 65 nautical miles away. Former Congress CM Amarsinh Chaudhary is contesting this constituency and most villagers predict the veteran tribal leader will sweep.

With a saffron scarf caped around his neck Modi cruises to a height of 10,000 feet above the ground, eyeing the ground with little emotion. A pack of biscuits and mineral water replenish him as he sits through the 30-minute flight, kneading his chin silently and glancing through a file his information officers had ‘specially prepared’ for him.

Time has published a story on the Modi phenomenon and the CM got his spin-doctors to break the story into 20 points and subheads so that it made easier reading. Beneath the file lies another clutch of papers. The first is an intelligence report that warns of an opposition contestant from Saurashtra inciting Muslim youth on the eve of the Babri Masjid demolition. The second is the advertisement Modi has spotted.

Fatwas fuel his polemic

He keeps its contents to himself, baffling everyone as to why he is reading a vernacular newspaper subscribed to primarily by Muslims of Ahmedabad. The rally clears their doubts. “Look at this ad in this newspaper. It is a fatwa issued by the All India Muslim Ulema Council urging a 100 percent voting during the forthcoming elections,” Modi thunders before the crowd, holding aloft the newspaper. “I wonder why the Election Commission has not taken note of this?”

On the day when the whole country was celebrating Eid, Modi had chosen the fatwa as the main peg of his speeches for the day. He advertises the fatwa at the venue of the second rally at Vijaynagar, 70 kilometers away from Kheroj. And then again at Ahmedabad, where he holds a series of meetings and sabhas in his constituency of Maninagar.

“But does it say anywhere in the advertisement that Muslims should vote a 100 per cent against the BJP or merely a call to exercise one’s democratic rights in a peaceful manner without naming any person or party?” I ask. Modi stares back, then replies dismissively: “There are a lot of serious things in this fatwa.” He then looks away.

Lonesome, but no dove

Left alone Modi is known to brood most of the time. A loner who takes decisions singularly. “Most of the time when he is at home, he keeps to himself. There is hardly any flow of friends or relatives. It’s just him in the big bungalow and with scores of policemen for company in the lawns outside,” says a senior police official at the CM residence.

Most importantly, he does not like to be probed, at least not on a one-on-one basis. Catch him if you can at a press conference, a television show being beamed to lakhs of viewers. An event. A show. Modi enthralls with his sharp rhetoric and witty abuse.

Sample this. If asked privately why he repeatedly attacks Sonia Gandhi and Pervez Musharraf but never his main rival, Gujarat Congress Chief Shankersinh Vaghela, in a single rally, he will glare back hard. Ask a second time, and he will put his arm around your shoulder and behave as if he had not heard the question at all: “Ok then, shall see you later friend,” he replies patronizingly before walking away.

But this day we found Modi bracing himself to answer a similar question. Only this time at a makeshift television studio taking questions from viewers all over the country. “Why do you attack Musharraf instead of spending time discussing issues of food, clothing and shelter, which are more pertinent in an assembly election?” the interviewer asks. Modi deftly looks into the camera and mouths a three-minute rehearsed, and oft-repeated, take on how Musharraf began the fight by raising the issue at the UN. By the time he finishes, he has created the ‘image’ of being a national leader who sets the tone for everything from India’s international relations to constitutional remedies. Gujarat seems nowhere on the radar.

Magic-man for BJP

In the BJP, the ploy seems to be working like a charm. “Don’t criticise him unnecessarily. He came just a year ago and everyone regards him as the best choice for Chief Minister,” says a BJP worker at Maninagar.

In Modi’s own words, he has worked ‘magic’ for the party. Meaning, he can either make the BJP grow to the size of a giant or make it vanish completely. So which of the two will it be this time?


First Published: Dec 11, 2002 01:54 IST