It is not a Sangh Parivar outfit, but crucial to its political plans
While the BJP dithers over a formal decision on its prime ministerial candidate, preparations have begun to make Narendra Modi’s claim even more insistent. The next step in his ascent within the BJP is aimed at gaining a special stature in Uttar Pradesh as an individual leader, much as he has in Gujarat.
In UP, which has 80 Lok Sabha seats, this operation is not to be carried out by any of the known Hindutva outfit, but by an informal organisation that has been working solely on the promotion of Modi’s image as an individual, one who happens to be Chief Minister of Gujarat. It is called the Narendra Modi Fans Club (NMFC), a grouping that Modi himself has nurtured assiduously over the past few years in his home state, and is ready to expand itself across UP. “Narendra Bhai asked me to begin work in UP,” says Khursheed Suma, all-India convener of the NMFC. Recounting the brief-though- firm instructions he was given in Ahmedabad by the Gujarat CM on 24 February, he says, “I didn’t want to go [away from] Gujarat, and I told him this, but he said it won’t help if it is done by a Hindu, ‘So you do it’.”
Suma’s meeting with Modi took place on the last day of a three-day workshop that was attended by newly elected MLAs and important BJP leaders of Gujarat. That day, Modi had held a one-and-a-half- hour interaction with these leaders, giving them lessons on time management and the qualities of a politician.
Suma met Modi on the sidelines of that workshop, and the CM said that BJP Vice- president Purushottam Rupala, a close aide of his, would facilitate the effort in UP. “Since then,” says Suma, “almost every week I talk to Rupalaji on how we should proceed on organising the Modi Fans Club in various parts of Uttar Pradesh.”
A 26-year-old resident of Rajkot and geography graduate of Saurashtra University, Suma says the NMFC was formed in 2005 but picked up in the last three years once it got Rupala’s patronage. “Initially, the organisation was called ‘Shri Narendra Bhai Modi Fans Club’, but later Rupala changed its name to ‘Narendra Modi Fans Club’,” says Suma, “That was also the time when he made me its all-India convener and Kashyap Shukla (a local BJP leader) its chairman.”
Though the NMFC has units in almost every district of Gujarat, it is particularly strong in Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Junagarh, Jamnagar, Surat and Vadodara. “Before the last Assembly election, our organisation played an important role in mobilising the youth, especially those of the Muslim community, in support of Narendra Bhai,” says Suma, a Muslim himself.
So highly did Modi and Rupala appreciate the NMFC’s efforts that its chairman Kashyap Shukla was fielded as a BJP candidate from Rajkot in Gujarat’s recent Assembly polls. Shukla, however, lost the election.
According to Suma, the NMFC will start getting its unit in Lucknow up and running next month. “We have been asked to concentrate initially on Lucknow. We will then organise the youth, both Hindus and Muslims, in other districts of the state,” he says, adding that the setting up of NMFC units in various districts of UP would be followed by a rally to be addressed by Modi in Lucknow. “We are told that the rally would be the beginning of Narendra Bhai’s campaign for the next Lok Sabha election,” he says.
The UP expansion idea has assumed urgency in the last few weeks, but it first took shape around the middle of November last year, even before Modi’s triumphant return to power in Gandhinagar (a foregone conclusion, though, as many in the BJP saw it). Lalji Tandon, the BJP’s Lucknow MP, wrote a letter to Rupala informing him of the NMFC’s plans for his constituency. ‘Narendra Modi Fans Club has been constituted in Lucknow. This body plans to organise a meeting of Shri Narendra Modiji,’ says Tandon’s letter, dated 18 November, requesting Rupala to arrange Modi’s Lucknow visit.
Though Rupala promptly forwarded the letter to Modi as well as Kursheed Suma, no action could be taken since they were preoccupied with the Gujarat polls. Once things started settling down, however, and Modi began working on his strategy to enhance his appeal beyond Gujarat, the issue was revived and Suma instructed to get the UP operation going. “I have had several rounds of telephonic talks with Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra and Neeraj Gupta (a Lucknow-based BJP leader) after Narendra Bhai gave a green signal to organise the Modi Fans Club in Lucknow and other parts of UP, and Rupalaji took the initiative into his own hands,” says Suma.
It is no secret that the Sangh Parivar sees UP as a communal cauldron that could be stirred to the BJP’s electoral benefit by the Gujarat Chief Minister. Modi also appears aware of his ability to stir up support in India’s largest state. It could not only polarise votes decisively in favour of the BJP, but also act as a unifying force for the party. In addition, Modi, by selling the so-called ‘Gujarat model of development’, could also help the party gain a sizeable chunk of middle- class votes. The proposed move would be a significant departure from the 2011 UP Assembly polls, when the state BJP was apprehensive of inviting Modi to campaign there for fear of losing secular Hindu votes. For the next general election, both Modi and the Sangh Parivar know that UP results could make or mar their prospects of reclaiming power at the Centre.
Presently, the BJP is in complete disarray in UP. In the 2004 and 2009 general elections, it won 10 seats—only an eighth of the state’s total Lok Sabha seats. Party leaders are desperate for a revival, and they believe that turning the state into a springboard for Modi will return the party there to its glory days of the 1990s. Leaders and cadres of the BJP, particularly in UP, point to the party’s past record in the state to back the belief that so long as they fight elections on their core Hindutva agenda, they win a large number of seats in the state. The BJP won 41 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 1991, 49 in 1996 and 52 in 1998. In the next general election held in 1999, as the party softened its Hindutva stance in response to coalition compulsions, its UP tally fell to 29, a Lok Sabha contingent that nearly got whittled down to single digits in the two general elections that followed.
For a party that once had strong showings in UP, this amounts to being banished to the margins of politics there. However, as the NMFC gets active, the BJP expects to turn its performance trend back upwards. Current ground conditions also favour Modi’s brand of politics. The past year has seen nearly 50 communal incidents, over a dozen of which have been major flare-ups.
In one such riot that engulfed Faizabad on 24 October last year, one of the slogans raised by Hindu communalists, as they set minority-owned shops aflame and vandalised a mosque, was: ‘UP bhi Gujarat banega, Faizabad shuruwat karega’ (UP too will become Gujarat, beginning with Faizabad). It was only shortly afterwards that Lalji Tandon wrote Rupala his letter of 18 November on the NMFC initiative and proposed Modi rally. Even more significantly, while Modi & Co took time to respond to the letter, BJP leaders in UP went determinedly ahead to play up the Modi factor in state politics. On Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 88th birthday, for example, hoardings and posters depicting him alongside Modi appeared in Lucknow, the constituency that had elected the former Prime Minister to the Lok Sabha five times (from 1991 to 2004). The current MP Tandon, who considers himself Vajpayee’s successor of sorts, even told mediapersons, “I welcome Modi to contest from Lucknow. We will work according to directions received from our central leadership.” Equally explicit were the printed slogans on hoardings and posters. ‘Badey Lakshya Ki Hai Taiyyari, Ab Hai Rashtra Dharma Ki Baari’ (To achieve a big target we prepare, it is now national duty/religion’s turn), declared one of these, leaving the word ‘dharma’ to reader interpretation.
That, however, expresses not just what is on the state BJP’s mind. Modi, too, seems well disposed to the idea of contesting Lucknow’s Lok Sabha seat. “Recently, the state party had sought our opinion on whether Narendra Bhai should contest from Lucknow or a parliamentary seat in Gujarat,” says Suma. “I am of the opinion that he should contest from Lucknow because that would show that he is acceptable even outside Gujarat.”
Though the BJP is yet to take a formal decision on the constituency that Modi will be fielded in, if he does win Lucknow, it is likely that the Sangh Parivar would declare him Vajpayee’s successor. And if he succeeds thus in capturing the prime minister’s post, the NMFC could get a big boost as a personal brigade—given solely to his ambitions and all he stands for.