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Taming Gujarat’s lion

With the Gujarat polls drawing close, the question on everyone’s lips is whether Modi will be able to repeat the feat of the 2002 polls, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2007 20:33 IST
Between us | Pankaj Vohra
Between us | Pankaj Vohra
Hindustan Times

Having lost key support, Modi’s position has become tenuous.

With the Gujarat assembly polls drawing close, the question on everyone’s lips is whether Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who’s being projected as an iconic figure by a section of the BJP, will be able to repeat the feat of 2002 elections. Besides facing a spirited challenge from the Congress, Modi also has to overcome resentment from a large segment of the Sangh parivar.

In doing so, he has to bring on board the elements opposed to him and ensure that the BJP and the rest of the Sangh put up a united face in the polls. As things stand, this looks difficult. Veterans like Keshubhai Patel appear indifferent to the elections in view of the central leadership’s support to Modi. And the RSS, despite wanting to help the BJP retain power in Gujarat, is reluctant to wholeheartedly back someone who has tried to project himself as a larger-than-life character at the cost of the organisation.

Surprisingly, the perception within large sections of the BJP in the state is quite different from that in Delhi. According to many Sangh activists, Modi is facing the biggest battle of his life, with all odds tilted heavily against him. He does not have the support of either his entire party in the state, or that of the Patels, the most influential Gujarati community, or even of the Kolis, also an important factor for the BJP to win. The adivasis who had opted for the saffron brigade the last time, thanks to some very good groundwork done by the RSS, too are having second thoughts on supporting him.

Strangely, the Gujarat election is turning out to be a Modi versus Modi contest, where one is either with him or against him. Those supporting him include a powerful section of the media. And the inability of the Congress to project someone as a chief ministerial candidate is also helping him. It may just result in Modi surging ahead in this keenly-watched election, which could have ramifications for national politics.

The Congress, in its keenness to dislodge Modi, seems to have thrown caution to the winds and has even agreed to give tickets to BJP dissidents, thereby diluting its commitment to fight communalism. While the number of BJP activists getting tickets is not known as of now, the Congress’s nervousness is evident from the fact that it is ready to compromise on its basic principles. This may be used against the Congress by other secular parties like the Samajwadi Party.

But Modi’s troubles are far from over and several BJP veterans believe that those seeing him as the victor forget that no individual can be greater than the organisation. Modi has created a myth of invincibility around himself and after the code of conduct coming into operation, even his meetings have started shrinking since government agencies that used to manage his crowds cannot do it anymore.

Modi’s position is also being threatened by the activities of the Sardar Patel Utkas Samiti. This group, led by Gordhanbhai Zadaphia, his erstwhile Home Minister, and two businessmen, Jeevraj Dhrukawala and Vasantbhai Gajera, comprises BJP sympathisers opposed to him. The Samiti had organised a massive rally of more than two lakh people in Surat, which was also meant to be attended by Keshubhai Patel, who eventually pulled out. Another rally in Rajkot was subsequently organised. Now, the Samiti has decided to cover 142 towns in the state to mobilise opinion against Modi, who is being projected as a power-hungry autocrat.

Then, there is a section of the Swaminarayan sect opposing him. And if reports emanating from Gujarat are accurate, even the followers of Asa Ram Bapu may come out openly against him. Keshubhai Patel, who is now silent about his opposition to Modi, is, however, understood to have conveyed the ground-level reality to L.K. Advani and RSS leaders. His son, Bharat, who was offered a ticket, has also decided not to contest the polls.

Modi’s detractors have likened him to Mulayam Singh Yadav, the former UP CM who was considered strong, but was defeated during the last polls. Arrogance and corruption are never tolerated by the people, his detractors say, and give the example of Om Prakash Chautala in Haryana, who, despite having done much in terms of development, was trounced by the Congress in 2005.

The Congress perhaps does not realise that Modi can be humbled and should stop playing a card that identifies it with only one community. No party can win if it is unable to carry the masses with it. It has to come up with a strategy that will help resuscitate it in the state. Failing this, its fortunes will suffer a setback not just in Gujarat, but also in the rest of the country.

But Modi is unlikely to give in easily. He is a born fighter and it matters little to him how he attains victory. Under the garb of projecting himself as the saviour of Gujarati pride is a cunning, machiavellian and decisive man. He also wields a charisma that inspires his followers, even if their numbers are dwindling.

He had snatched the chief ministership from Keshubhai Patel by outfoxing his colleagues in the BJP and the RSS. He is certainly not going to surrender meekly. He knows victory will take him on to the national stage. But to achieve this, Modi has to first earn the love of the people of Gujarat. In the end, they will decide what is good or bad for them. Between us.

First Published: Nov 25, 2007 20:26 IST