There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company—and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.
But there are many who hope he never gets there for if he does, they fear, he would already have charted a ruinous course for India as she is known. For here is an architect of fractures who can dream but a splintered design, who can deal but in debris. Here is a man striding divisions, driving them deeper, infusing them with greater hate and bitterness. Here is a man quite unabashed about what he is up to. Here is a man so focused on his distorted vision, he couldn’t care for correctness, political or otherwise. The Gujarat riots were nothing but a “secular reaction” to the carnage of Godhra; if tempers were such they spilled into murder and mayhem it was only a measure of the depth of public shock and anger. The relief camps had to be shut and the refugees sent back to their charred and sundered homes because the government was not interested in any more charity, not certainly for baby-making factories; the Muslims could go and turn their five into twenty-five and twenty-five into six hundred and twenty five but his government was not subsidising them.
The Chief Election Commissioner must be lashed about and flayed not because he takes decisions that are inconvenient and unpalatable but because his first name is James and, therefore, he must be deep in some dark conspiracy with the Vatican and Sonia Gandhi. Here is a man who doesn’t like mincing words. In fact, he often reveals a crowbar where his tongue should lie and he doesn’t like apologising for putting it to use. The more he can do to annoy and affront, the better off he is, the more villainous he looks to some, the more heroic he begins to feel. The more some people revile him, the more others rave about him. Censure is fodder to his cannons, he will court more so he can keep his guns blazing.
He is the classical anti-image, his stature is determined by his adversary. The more the opposition to him the more he can feed and fatten on it. There is nothing that pleases him more than the charge of being anti-Muslim. The more the minority gets ranged against him, the more the majority consolidates behind him.
Accuse Narendra Modi of being a Hindu communal bigot and he would respond like you had paid him a compliment. That’s like telling Ariel Sharon he is anti-Palestinian or Slobodan Milosevic that he is too pro-Serb. Those are the badges they want to wear. That’s the badge Modi wants on his chest, it’s his ticket past the turnstiles into power. Vajpayee might pander to right-wing Hindu sentiment one day and retreat to Kumarakom to script lengthy, liberal apologies. Advani might be driven by the constraints of office and visions of higher office to put the hardliner image on the backburner as it were and make solemn pledges against a Hindu theocratic India. Not so Narendra Modi. At least not in the blistered run-up to elections in his state. He has a killer’s instinct for power and a hunter’s will to pursue it. What’s more, he has a diabolical sense of the hour and how to make it his own. When passenger coach S-6 was set afire on Godhra junction late February he seized the opportunity. He saw in a single flash of that incendiary moment a road map to new vainglory although the maxim it ran on was a very old and established one, used by many astute practitioners of power before him—that dividing is a handy principle to rule by.
Till Narendra Modi arrived at the helm in Gujarat, paradropped by the Central leadership on the part-unwilling, part-apprehensive local set-up, the BJP was a write-off in the State, labouring under mounting liabilities, the most burdensome of which was the weight of incumbency. Five years in power and its leaders and cadres seemed to have run out of steam and ideas. The Congress, freshly galvanised under a new leader, had begun the countdown to a comeback. Modi, in fact, had been sent there as a last-ditch desperate measure, which has become quite the patented style of the BJP—Sushma Swaraj roped in at the eleventh hour to save Delhi, Rajnath Singh pressed in to rescue fortunes in Uttar Pradesh. But like the other two, most even in the BJP believed that Modi had been sent in too late and he could achieve too little. The management of the quake crisis had been a disaster and it hadn’t helped that Keshubhai Patel was in charge—a lumbering, superannuated centurion when what the party really needed was a battle-ready general.
In his first few months, Modi did inject, as any new man would, a measure of energy and enthusiasm to the BJP in Gujarat but nothing he did, or could do, convinced anyone that he had been able to reverse the downhill course of the party in the State. To add to all the problems he had inherited, there was a new and rather cumbersome millstone round his neck—Keshubhai Patel himself. Modi would often tell friends and colleagues he had made a mistake by accepting a “thankless task”.
But all that was until Godhra happened. Post-Godhra, Modi was a man transformed. Suddenly, he was no longer besieged in his crumbling fortress; he was out raiding, charging. Suddenly, he was not defensive anymore, he was bellicose and daring. What was tragedy, Modi converted into an opportunity; he picked up the flames from Godhra and blazed a new trail with devilish determination. He used Godhra to turn tables and more; he seized the accelerator on the countdown to elections, the Congress began seeking a slowdown. “Let us have elections any day,” he said during a short trip to New Delhi in July, “today, tomorrow, yesterday, I am ready, my people are ready, they will tell you what is what. You call me all sorts of names in Delhi, come to Gujarat and see what my people are calling me.” He was able to brag with the audacity of a man standing on the right side of a divide.
Modi, of course, has had good apprenticeship in the creation of divides and it’s cumulative consequences. Born in the ancient North Gujarat town of Vadnagar in 1950, he moved to Ahmedabad at the age of 17 to join the RSS, which has looked after him ever since, even putting him through college to earn an MA in Political Science from Gujarat University. He hitched his fortunes to Jaiprakash Narayan’s Navnirman Andolan in 1974 and has not looked back since. In the last two decades he has straddled the perceived RSS-BJP segregation far consummately than most others in the party. In 1988 he was made general secretary of the Gujarat BJP and he used this position to launch himself on the national scene as one of the key organisers of Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra and of Murl Manohar Joshi’s walkathon from Kanya kumari to Kashmir and he saw, first hand, the metamorphosis in the BJP, from a party of two to 200 seats in the Lok Sabha. Modi was very much a backroom boy at the time, overseeing daily logistics and handling the media but whenever he got the chance he never flinched from displaying his loyalty to the cause. Talking casually to journalists during a one-night halt in the course of Advani’s RathYatra in Bihar, he shrugged his shoulders at the bloody and divisive tread-mark of the campaign: riots, clashes, curfews. “Dekhiye, kisibhi bade abhiyan mein yeh chhoti-moti baaten hoti hain, yeh itihaas hai aur jab samaj itihaas rachta hai to kampan hota hai. Yeh to rashtra bhaavana se juda abhiyaan hai, yeh to aar yaa paar ka maamla hai, thoda-bahut tanav to har haar-jeet ki ladai mein hota hai.” (In any big campaign, these small things will happen. This is history being written and when history is written, you can expect a few quakes and quivers. This is a question of national sentiments and this battle will go this way or that, whenever there is a decisive battle, there will be tensions.)
It must be said of Modi that he has behaved truer to his convictions—quarrel as you might with them—than many of his peers. The Ayodhya movement was an article of faith for him and it has always remained so. “You cannot ignore the emotions of the majority, else there will never be peace in this country,” he often says. And although as chief minister he may not speak against the jurisdiction of courts in the Ayodhya matter, that is the position he holds—it is a matter of faith and the faith of the majority must prevail. “Hindoosthan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hoga” is to Modi the essential principle of accepted socio-political behaviour. In fact, so well and deeply dyed in khaki is he that whenever one needed to get a sense of what might be happening in the often off-limits bull pen of the RSS, Modi was the man to go to—if there was one man among the general secretaries of the BJP who knew the workings of the RSS mind, it was Modi. Not always because he had information but because he had the instinct; he thought like one of them, he was, and is, one of them. And he wouldn’t move a millimeter to pretend he isn’t.
His expensive taste for clothes and accessories notwithstanding, Modi is, in fact, the archetypal swayamsewak and pracharak, verily a manifestation of the prescription in the Saffron Book. An RSS man becomes a swayamsewak takes an oath that reads” “I pledge this day that I will remain a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh throughout my life; I shall carry out unhesitatingly any order given by the Sangh. I shall go for work whenever required. Whatever defects of the Sangh I shall come to know, I will never disclose them before any person not connected with the Sangh, even at the cost of my life.” And a pracharak, should he be a true pracharak, must have no home other than the Sangh. Although there are no strict rules about this, a pracharak must ideally be a bachelor “because to take care of a family divides loyalty and responsibility”. Modi perhaps fits that bill more than many others. As general secretary of the BJP, Modi would stay in a one-room quarter annexed to the headquarters, available on call to the party and the cause 24 hours of the day. One functionary of the BJP head office at New Delhi’s Ashoka Road remembers him thus: “He has no life other than the party and the Sangh. He lives and thinks and talks about nothing else. He is an organisation man, head to toe.”
He has often called himself a “misfit” in public office. He has often protested he prefers the backroom to the pulpit, that he is happier working for the party than running the government. But that, as we all know, is a case of protesting too much. Pronounced reluctance is fig-leaf to unpronounced eagerness. To believe that Modi is averse to chief ministership is to also believe that he had arrived at the Goa summit of the BJP in midsummer, scarred by his short fling with governance and ready to give up and return to the backroom. Quite on the contrary, he came to Goa determined to hold on in the face of mounting demands—even from sections within the party—that he be sacked. He had come not to submit but to dare. The mayhem of Gujarat had not been a consequence of his inexperience and inefficiency, it had happened at his bidding. It was not a lapse, it was a deliberate design. And now the gauntlet was before the party. It either committed itself to Modi and his politics or risked losing not only Gujarat but also earning the wrath of its hardline bosses in the Parivar for whom Modi had already become the latest pin-up.
Modi was in a blasé mood at Goa. He was ready to be cast out; it was for the party to take the consequences thereafter. In an eyeball to eyeball that the nation keenly watched, the party blinked. To believe that Modi survived Goa or that he earned a reprieve is to miss the point a bit. Modi came to Goa riding a tide and he swept the party with it. Proof? Prime Minister Vajpayee, the Liberal, rounded off the Goa convention with a speech that might have rankled in his own ears later. Wherever Muslims go, he said, they create trouble, they have become a problem the world over and Gujarat was no exception. The menace in Gujarat was not Modi and his mobs, the menace was “Muslim terrorism”.
Since Goa, Modi has gone from strength to strength, at least in the estimation of the all-important Parivar. Such is his standing today that he has often come close to edging out even that darling of all seasons—Lal Krishna Advani—in the saffron popularity ratings. “Advani,” said Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary Ashok Singhal, after the home minister’s “secular India” speech in Parliament mid-November, “has begun to speak like a pseudo-secularist, Modi is the man keeping the flag up.” On websites devoted to him,which no doubt have his blessings, Modi at age 52 loves being described as ‘The Young Indian Statesman’, a ‘Poet- writer’ and most importantly as ‘Sardar’ after Sardar Vallabhbai Patel. And if he does deliver Gujarat to the Party and the Parivar, as he promises to, who knows how tall he might emerge and who he might overshadow. Who knows where he might carry that dubious flag of victory next and where he may choose to effect his next experiments in fracture.
Someday very soon someone will commission a poll on who will be India’s preferred pick for prime minister in 2019, and the answer won’t be worth either the wait or the bet. It will be the same man who has consistently led such polls since 2013 or thereabouts: Narendra Damodardas Modi. His most credible emerging challenger, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, will probably have added a few percentage points to his lapel but the overwhelming odds still are Modi will re-emerge frontrunner by a fair distance.
There doesn’t exist in the field yet a politician that can match Modi on vital counts — reach, resources, energy, focus, impact; the ability to intervene and disrupt and, very often, cynically and dangerously distort for political purchase; a flair for communicating to his constituency with things said and left unsaid; a whetted, and occasionally diabolical, determination to retain grip on his reign. Modi is a consummate and unsentimental power creature like no other about. He hasn’t come under the lee of last week’s reverses suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he continues to loom over them, still quite a raved, even ravished, reputation.
But here’s the thing about reputations and public ravishment with them: they tend to quickly unravel, and sometimes they unravel without revealing upon the victim the approaching fall of fates. As happened to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004, arguably the Leviathan of that time but one who had begun to gloat on the notion that he had conjured a Shining India. Or as happened to the Janata Party, so euphorically elected in 1977 as rap and replacement to Indira Gandhi and her excessive Emergency; the Janata jubilation soured so quickly and wholly, the widely despised and dethroned Indira Gandhi was brought back to power in 1980. Or even as happened to her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, who still holds the record for acquiring the largest-ever Lok Sabha kitty in 1984. It all got frittered in the space of less than a term; by 1989 India’s first pin-up prime minister had come unstuck. When the ground beneath shifts, the first it fells are those that stand tallest on it.
There will, justifiably, be arguments over whether or not the ouster of BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh reflect on Modi, and if they do, to what degree. Modi, after all, was not a contender anywhere. Several reports off the field suggested that despite the adverse turn of public mood towards incumbents in the states, Modi himself appeared unaffected, that this was a local vote driven by local factors; the 2019 vote, with Modi at its centre, will be quite another in nature. Presidential, if one word can sum it up; if not Modi, WHO?
What there can be little argument about are a few other things that might also come to bear on the outcome of 2019. The first among them is this: a large chunk of the Indian heartland has now slipped under Congress rule and all of its governments will be freshly incumbent by the time Lok Sabha elections are held; power lends you key levers and in the three states the BJP just lost, those levers are with the Congress. For a party like the Congress, whose rank and file had turned infamously demotivated since 2014, three chunky handles on power will also likely mean an injection of energy and self-belief at the organisational level. At the leadership level, Pappu has already begun to fluster the authors of that moniker. And Pidi is no longer yelping or barking; Pidi just bit, not once but thrice. Rahul Gandhi is beginning to deliver what few reckoned he ever was capable of delivering: electoral victories and the shoots of a sense that Indian politics isn’t the unipolar deal that Modi’s raucous cries of “Congress-mukt Bharat” and BJP president Amit Shah’s claims of “ruling another fifty years” had begun to suggest to some. That question has been resoundingly asked as counter-echo to There Is No Alternative (TINA): Is There No Alternative (ITNA) ?
The Modi-Shah duo has suffered reverses earlier, in Delhi, in Bihar, in Punjab, in Karnataka. But this may be different. This is about a piece of real estate the BJP believed to have exclusive rights over, its core ground, the Hindi-speaking, overwhelmingly Hindu cow-belt. And the loss of it has arrived far too close to the 2019 contest.
There are yet more things there can be little arguing with. Up close to the end of Modi’s term, rural/agrarian anger swirls about its pocket-borough patch like never before, and the blame for that must lie at the Centre’s door much more than it lies with state governments. Seventy or more per cent of the populations of states the BJP just lost live in villages and depend on land — its produce and the buying power it generates or does not. The losses for the BJP in rural belts has been stunning as a slap. Thirty four per cent rural seat-share losses in Chhattisgarh, 30 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 49 per cent in Rajasthan. Those numbers turn darker when set in a Venn diagram to depict the overlap with the desertion of SC/ST votes. The BJP lost more than 61 lakh votes in just those three states; the Congress gained close to a crore and a quarter. A projection — purely mathematical as opposed to political, it must be emphasised — suggests the BJP stands to lose as many as 44 Lok Sabha seats across this geography.
The ground was adverse, angry. Which brings us to another, and probably critical, issue not many can argue with: Modi’s inability to turn things around this time. It’s what the BJP has come to invest great faith in — the knack Modi has of landing in the midst of a tough battle and extracting victory from the jaws of defeat, of turning things around single-handed, of turning the public mood with his oratory, of unleashing a surge of energy nobody else can. The Prime Minister barn-stormed the battlegrounds aggressively and provocatively, but he could not swing it. Whether the razor verdicts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were achieved because Modi was able to push and spur with his rallies or whether it was down to how popular local leaders like Shivraj Chouhan remained is a matter the BJP will best grapple with internally, but on the outside the patent truth is Modi could not make a significant difference.
What can he do to intervene more decisively in the coming months, as he has often done in the past? Does he have a record to boast of, feathers to pin into his flamboyant pugrees? On the evidence of the campaign he just finished, there exists a poverty of positive talking points in his quiver. In the absence of credible claims he could make, he chose to rely on blame, on attacking the Nehru-Gandhis in particular. He often sounded surreal, as if they were still in saddle and he were launching into battle against the Nehru-Gandhi establishment. He no longer brags about demonetisation or GST, aware that the widespread verdict on both is palpably negative. The hope he generated in 2013-14 has turned to heated hype paid for mostly by the public exchequer. His fancy flagship initiatives have barely gone beyond claims and sloganeering. Unemployment is soaring, purses across the nation are pinching. (Or, it could be argued that farmers don’t carry purses.) Key institutions he has turned to a shambles over the course of his reign — Supreme Court judges found themselves compelled to call an unprecedented press meet and raise alarm over executive interference, the Reserve Bank lies wracked, the CBI is controversially riven and headless, the Central Information Commission has complained of manipulation, the armed forces, well they have never ever before been encouraged into overt ultra-nationalist political discourse as today.
Modi did play hard at his default mode on the side — Hindu Hriday Samrat. He commandeered the VHP-Bajrang Dal and UP chief minister “Yogi” Ajay Singh Bisht “Adityanath” to wage battle for him. The VHP-Bajrangis renewed their oaths to a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and were volubly endorsed by Shah and Ram Madhav. Bisht himself choppered about the campaign, addressing 74 rallies at reliable count. He had come from lavish Dussehra celebrations and the renaming of Faizabad as Ayodhya. He had come from rococo declarations of erecting a lofty Ram statue. He spouted such gems as calling Hanuman a Dalit; we know the Dalits were hurt, we haven’t heard what Hanuman thought of it. He forsook Ali for Bajrangbali. He wanted Hyderabad changed to something that few Hyderabadis had ever heard of. The BJP lost wherever he went.
When the public mood turns averse, not even God can help, much less the fabled poll mechanics and machineries Shah has put in place. Democracies live by another god, goes by the name of Voter.
PS: If it at all is an aid to perspective, India’s first cow welfare minister, Otaram Devasi, lost to an independent Congress rebel from Sirohi district in Rajasthan.