The man, the mind, the mandate and the mission...
PR Ramesh and Ullekh NP | 16 May, 2014
The man, the mind, the mandate and the mission…
Hurricane Modi swept through the heartland and beyond, broke down caste and class barriers, and posted the first clear majority for any single political party since 1984. The landslide for the BJP—which won 282 seats on its own—has shifted the tectonic plates of Indian politics as the party secured its highest ever share of votes. Narendra Modi tapped the anger of young voters impatient for change. He harvested national despair, won them over, decimated the Congress and other dynasty-led entities and severely battered north Indian regional satraps who had for decades enjoyed national political clout disproportionate to their strength.
Verdict 2014 also saw a massive crystallisation of a pan- Hindu vote bank under one umbrella for the first time. The various caste groupings that got splintered and became captive vote banks for purveyors of identity politics became the vanguard of the Modi revolution. This curtailed the Muslim ‘veto’ in Indian elections. In the event that the BJP succeeds in consolidating its new support base in Uttar Pradesh—it won 73 of the 80 seats in the state—its competitors would find it tough to move forward. Modi invaded the social turfs of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh and shrank the Congress to two Lok Sabha constituencies in UP.
“This is a rewriting of history. And you are part of it. We should all be proud,” Amit Shah, the BJP’s shrewd campaign manager and mastermind of the record tally for the BJP in UP, tells Open Echoing Modi’s promise in the run- up to the polls of a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’, Shah says the national capital will no longer be in the hands of elites or dynasties. It was Shah, Modi’s confidant, who played the pivotal role in the party’s UP sweep, converting euphoria over Modi into votes.
Modi, in his first response on 16 May to his party’s thumping victory, aimed his message at young Indians who want more jobs, better living conditions and higher economic growth, saying, “Achche din aane waale hain (good days are coming).” The electoral verdict, which spurred widespread celebrations by BJP workers, has turned three state governments—Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand—vulnerable, while a massive surge in favour of the BJP in Maharashtra, Assam and Delhi is expected to favour the saffron party in Assembly polls due later this year. The General Election results have also wiped out the Left, the dynasties of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, M Karunanidhi and Farooq Abdullah. It also stamped out the Nitish Kumar-led JD-U and NCP. Interestingly, the only three state-level leaders who withstood the Modi wave are the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.
While Modi is expected to lead a CEO-style governance model, the political legitimacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which promoted a diarchy over the past decade, has already come under question. The poll outcome is a slap on the face of the family, especially its scion and campaign chief Rahul Gandhi, who controlled the former Government from outside in whimsical ways, and has led the party’s most disastrous campaign in history—to the extent that he and his mother Sonia Gandhi are the only two Congress candidates to win in UP. Moreover, the leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha can’t play the Leader of the Opposition’s role because it has won fewer than the required 55 seats; it is now up to the discretion of the next Prime Minister to confer that status on a Congress leader. Back in the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, the then PM had granted AK Gopalan of the undivided CPI a similar special status. As opposed to the Congress, the BJP has made incursions into states that the Congress saw as bastions and helped allies such as the TDP arrest the growth of a Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress in Seemandhra.
Unsurprisingly, among senior leaders of India’s Grand Old Party, only Jairam Ramesh, who is known to punch above his political weight, was seen chatting with TV anchors on the day of vote counting. The 4.30 pm press conference of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi lasted just two minutes, and the mother dissuaded the son from taking queries from reporters.
SUNSET ON DYNASTY
Long before counting began, senior ministers and party functionaries had made efforts to insulate Rahul Gandhi from humiliation. While Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh said the election campaign was a “collective exercise”, Kamal Nath blamed the UPA Government for the defeat. “Results are the outcome of people’s perception of the Government’s functioning. Rahul Gandhi was never part of the Government,” he said. Translation: the accusatory finger should point at the man who occupied the corner room in South Block for the past 10 years, not at any resident of either 10 Janpath or 12 Tughlak Lane in the capital.
However, these feeble attempts of courtiers may not be enough to shield Rahul Gandhi from sniper fire. While the narrowing of his victory margin in the family pocketborough of Amethi advertised his poor connect even with his own constituents, the rout of the Congress across India underlined the diminished vote-catching ability of the dynasty. That the Gandhi family’s clout was waning steadily was evident months ago: thanks to the miserable performance of the party in assembly polls held in the Hindi belt late last year. While the BJP bettered its performance in the states it has controlled for the past 10 years—Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—the Congress was pushed to the margins in Rajasthan and Delhi. “There were clear signs of the approval numbers of the family tanking in these elections,” according to Shah. “The idea of dynasty, in any case, is not compatible with the grammar of democratic polity.”
Even Rahul’s admirers concede that finding the right tone in this election has been tough for the chief campaigner of the Congress. He fell back on an emotional script centred on the sacrifices of his family, unaware that he was selling this message to an India with little or no memory of what he sought to glorify. After all, the last direct rule of the dynasty ended a quarter century ago.
The coming days will see the Congress leadership attract flak for its tone-deaf approach, a talking-down style and a belief that a single family and its friends alone know what’s good for India. By force of habit, Congressmen may not still directly target Rahul but those who assisted him in fashioning the party’s poll strategy. Collateral damages are certain: this defeat will undoubtedly stall Rahul’s organisational revamp. The family’s dependence on the old guard—sidelined by recent lateral entrants— would get heavier. The run-up to the election had seen Rahul Gandhi relying more on greenhorns than on those who ran the affairs of the Government, or even the party—such as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel.
A BRAND NEW POLITICS
Modi, who mauled powerful regional satraps in states where the caste narrative marginalised national parties, showed that he has the wherewithal to beat them at their own game. In UP, for example, Modi was not just successful in consolidating ‘upper’ castes for the BJP, but also took apart the Samajwadi Party’s ‘backward’ caste vote bank and more or less obliterated Mayawati’s Dalit base, drawing their votes to the BJP, whose UP tally alone exceeds the Congress’ all-India figure.
By ending the supremacy of the SP and BSP, Modi has redefined the politics of UP, which has historically decided who gets to rule the country. The two state-level parties had contested UP’s Assembly polls of 1993 together to counter the BJP, which was then riding a Ram temple wave. Although they parted ways in 1995 and have been bitter enemies since, they have been the main political players in the state.
The BJP has managed to strike the right caste balance in this election. It gave one-third of its tickets to numerically preponderant OBCs and signalled clearly that power would not remain in the hands of the party’s ‘upper’ caste leadership. This huge group of voters, it may be recalled, had deserted the BJP after Kalyan Singh, an OBC Lodh Rajput, left the party in the 1990s.
In Bihar, the BJP’s appeal to OBC voters that one of their own, Modi, ought to be India’s Prime Minister worked to its advantage. While Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s calculation that ending his party’s ties with the BJP would make him the state’s sole beneficiary of Muslim votes looked good on paper, it did not work out that way. Instead, a consolidation of ‘upper’ caste, EBC and Dalit votes in NDA’s favour helped Modi trounce his rivals.
The new social umbrella that Modi has forged—‘upper’ castes, OBCs, MBCs and a sizeable section of Dalits— would give the BJP a lethal support base in any electoral combat. “Modi’s ‘backward caste’ image will not put off the ‘upper caste’ voter. The Modi brand has something for everyone. It is a big package,” says a BJP leader. His development mantra also helped in the consolidation of this omnibus constituency. “The younger generation shares the aspirations of a changing India. Caste identity is important, but addressing their demands is equally critical. Here, Modi has been more successful than his competitors, as he has a proven track record,” says Dharmendra Pradhan of the BJP.
The Modi typhoon that swept away BJP’s rivals in the Hindi heartland, home to a good chunk of minority voters, offers lessons for those who base their political calculus on the power of the so-called ‘Muslim veto’. It was this belief that prompted Nitish Kumar to snap ties with the BJP, encouraged the Congress to persist with a script that treated Modi as a monster, prompted Mulayam and his cohorts to communalise India’s Kargil War victory against Pakistan, and led politicos of non-saffron hues to crowd alleys leading to the Islamic seminary at Deoband in western Uttar Pradesh. To borrow from MJ Akbar, what they were seeking was not the community’s vote, but its veto to defeat Narendra Modi.
Ahead of the election, Modi had consistently maintained that he would not discriminate against members of India’s minority community. On his refusal to wear a skullcap during his Sadbhavana Yatra, he has held firm. In an interview in the midst of the election season, he said, “If wearing a cap were to be seen as a symbol of unity, then I never saw Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel or Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wearing such caps… actually, a bad practice of appeasement has crept into Indian politics. My job is to respect all religions and traditions… I live my tradition and respect the traditions of others. That’s why I cannot fool people by posing for photographs wearing a cap.”
AN AMAZING JOURNEY
“From pariah to Prime Minister! This is nothing short of a miracle,” exults a senior BJP leader, referring to Modi’s cliff-hanger of a journey from the quiet backwaters of Gujarat’s Vadnagar to Delhi’s highly fortified 7 Race Course Road residence.
In the shanties that serve tea along the road to the village- town where Modi was born in 1950, people are used to being wonder-struck. They have been talking animatedly about various heroic tales of the BJP heavyweight from his childhood ever since he became Gujarat’s Chief Minister some 13 years ago. Some of these tales have become part of Modi Mythology, such as the story of the teenage Narendra’s escape from the jaws of a crocodile, which echoes the childhood experience of Jagatguru Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu seer who lived and died in Varanasi.
HK Mehta, Vadnagar resident and brother of local BJP leader Sunilbhai Mehta, isn’t interested in “these ballads”, as he calls them. But he agrees that the world is full of miracles and coincidences, “ones you cannot fathom with the human mind”, as he says with a philosophical flourish. “What is more important here is how Modi became such a prominent leader from being born into poverty and neglect. You know it doesn’t happen often that a person who belongs to a community such as his makes such a big mark in life. He has made us all proud beyond explanation,” says Mehta, who is in his seventies, with youthful vigour.
“Modi will make the institution of the PMO stronger than it ever was. I noticed his determination long years ago,” says Mehta, who never knew Modi as a child though he has lived close to the railway station where the leader as a young man sold commuters tea, as well as Bhagvatacharya Narayanacharya High School, where Modi studied. “Now people come up with stories… I don’t know about them. Modi was born to the Teli-Ghanchi community [traditionally, makers of cooking oil], and the rise of a man from such a status to that of India’s Prime Minister is unbelievable,” he avers as his eyes light up.
Mehta first met Modi when he gave a speech “some 25 years ago”. By then, Modi had left home for good, wandered the Himalayas, knew Swami Vivekananda’s quotations by heart, grown a beard on the advice of a saint, became a full-time member of the RSS and had his now- famous 56-inch chest. “I looked at his forehead and I knew he was a born leader,” Mehta recalls.
Seated under a tree near the railway station, next to a dusty narrow road, Abdul, who was Modi’s junior by a year in school, remembers him as an “active kid” and a good swimmer at the nearby Sharmishtha Lake. “He was from a poor family like many of us,” remembers Abdul. Being poor and ‘low’ caste left him largely anonymous as a child, says Mehta. On his part, Prem Chand, a Vadnagar resident in his eighties, says that nobody in those days—when Modi was a child in Vadnagar, which is just over 100 km from his current bungalow in Gandhinagar—had any great ambition other than to pursue their parents’ occupation. The tea that Modi sold was at his father Damodardas’ shop at a single-gauge platform in Vadnagar, and he would take breaks from classes just before trains rolled in. Unlike most of his peers— which included his five siblings—in this sleepy semi-rural outpost, Modi was ambitious and had no qualms about it. He was different from other children his age: he was only eight years old when he started attending RSS shakhas. He was deeply affected by India’s wars of 1962 and 1965 and wanted to do something for his country.
Under the spell of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, he finally left home when he was barely 18. This was around the time that he was married to Yashodaben in accordance with a tradition of childhood betrothal still common in his community. Modi travelled to the Belur Math in West Bengal and beyond, destined never to live in Vadnagar again.
Another senior BJP leader says that Modi is a ‘complex’ individual because “you never know how he plans his moves”. But what is transparent about him, this leader says, is that he loves people “who deliver”. Modi could be your friend only as long as you’re a doer, he explains. “He appreciates only merit and this will be very clear in the months to come. Which is why he succeeds and climbs over all hurdles,” he says, emphasising that this “detachment of sorts” sets him apart from most politicians who have permanent friends and enemies.
Modi has remained invulnerable to personal attack. “He has been able to disconnect himself from vicious and malicious rumours about his character. Which is why he has been able to survive the no-holds-barred campaign against him within India and abroad,” says the BJP leader, alluding to the US denial of a visa to Modi and what he calls “stupid” comments by academics of the stature of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. “Modi, I can tell you, is unperturbed by all vitriolic comments about him because of his RSS background and his ascetic past,” says this leader.
This emotional aloofness—or coldness—that some of his close associates refer to as “extreme defiance” has surprised even Modi’s parents, who had expected him to live a happy married life in Vadnagar, only to see him return from a self-imposed exile of two years in 1970 to tell his mother Hiraben, now 94, that he was away “in the Himalayas”. Modi had been associated closely with the Ramakrishna Mission, both in West Bengal and Rajkot, in Gujarat, where an ascetic, Swami Atmasthananda, advised him not to become a Mission monk, insisting that his calling lay elsewhere. According to Modi’s biographer Andy Marino, the BJP leader met Atmasthananda last year at the Belur Math to thank him for that advice.
THE WINNING STRATEGY
In hindsight, it was Modi’s induction to the BJP Parliamentary Board, despite opposition from a few party leaders, that set the stage for his PM candidacy. However, it was the rallies that he planned across the country—through last year’s state elections—that forced a presidential style election on the Congress, which had named Rahul as vice-president and declared that the Nehru-Gandhi scion would lead the then ruling party into the electoral arena. Though the Congress didn’t name Rahul as its PM candidate, the scion, with no experience whatsoever of governance, paled in comparison with Modi.
The Congress vice-president’s reluctance to plunge into the campaign wholeheartedly didn’t go down well with those Congress workers who resented the fact that the 43-year-old often upped and left midway to enjoy dinners at Delhi’s posh malls. The poor image of the scam- scarred Manmohan Singh Government and the UPA’s dismal failure to project its achievements, too, proved costly for Rahul. The BJP’s meticulously executed ad campaign— as opposed to the Congress’ poorly managed one—helped the saffron party stay ahead all through the race, especially on the back of ‘hit’ slogans such as ‘Abki Baar Modi Sarkar’, ‘Log Kehte Hain Modi Aanewaala Hai’ and ‘Achche Din Aane Waale Hain’. Modi himself addressed 437 rallies, took part in 5,827 public interface events and travelled over 300,000 km across 25 states in his attempt to reach out to citizens everywhere, in what was arguably the most extensive outreach programme undertaken by a single leader in Indian electoral campaign history.
Political pundits aver that Modi deliberately took the fight to the doorsteps of regional leaders as well, though he could have done without it, to drive home the message that his was a nationwide campaign and not restricted to seats where the BJP and Congress were in mutual battle. “Modi hitting out at Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik may not have had a huge impact in states where they are strong, like West Bengal or Odisha, but his statements did encourage voters to believe that his was a high- voltage pan-India campaign. And this was intentional,” says Pradhan. “Modi has always had tremendous appeal as a ‘man of action’ and we wanted to make the most of that perception.”
Even Congress leaders in Gujarat subscribe to that view. One of them, based in Gandhinagar, says that the BJP anointed Modi the Chief Minister of Gujarat in late 2001 on account of his popularity among BJP workers of the state. “I am not an admirer of the man or his ways,” says the Congress leader, “But he was always regarded as a no-nonsense manager of the party machinery.”
As in everything associated with Modi, there was plenty of drama involved in appointing him CM in 2001. Atal Behari Vajpayee, then Prime Minister, was worried that the party’s Keshubhai Patel had earned a bad reputation as a nepotist CM. Both Vajpayee and Advani were upset about setbacks in municipal elections and other local polls. Modi, who was in Delhi, got a call from Vajpayee on 1 October 2001, asking for a meeting. In the evening, when the two met, the then PM asked him to take over the reins of the Gujarat government from Patel. Modi, despite having been banished from the state, used to receive huge rounds of applause at party meetings held in Gujarat, much to the anguish of his detractors. On the day he took over as CM, 7 October 2001, thousands of party workers celebrated his ascent with gusto and looked upon him as someone who would clean up the mess the state government was in. He didn’t disappoint them.
Triumphant at the Centre, Modi is likely to have a ‘thin’ team to help run India’s new Government. BJP leaders such as Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah and Suresh Soni are expected to land plum posts. Others who could get key positions include JP Nadda, Dharmendra Pradhan and Sushil Modi. Modi-baiters within the BJP are unlikely to be assigned important portfolios, a person close to the matter discloses, emphasising that Modi is looking at reshuffling the structure of the Union Cabinet to bring allied departments under a common umbrella. For instance, the Ministries of Commerce and External Affairs may be placed under the charge of a single minister; the logic is that such a measure will help boost trade ties. As Open goes to press, BJP sources are cagey about the details of Modi’s other plans.
“Modi has won on his own and without doubt he will have ultimate control,” says this source close to Modi, adding that the poll triumph is stunning enough to silence all his critics within the party. It is a core team of Singh, Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari and Shah that is expected to take decisions on government formation, he adds. “Let’s not forget that this is an election fought over a single man and his charisma, and he would want to have people of his choice to work with him to deliver promises he has made to the people of this country. He has survived a test of fire and all those character-assassination campaigns,” he says without elaboration.
The Congress, since achieving power in May 2004, had unleashed an unsparing campaign to pin on Modi the communal riots in Gujarat that followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in Godhra on 27 February 2002. Various activist groups have also investigated his alleged inaction while violence flared up and engulfed some cities in the state. Later, he came under sharp attack over the alleged misuse of police forces to organise ‘fake encounters’ and win popular favour by constantly invoking the ravages of Islamist terror. While Modi loyalists and partymen say that leaders stung by Modi’s rising popularity were behind such rumours, activists such as Pravin Mishra forecast that the long arm of the law will finally tap him on the shoulder “despite all the support of corporates who are beneficiaries of the sops he has doled out to them”. BJP leaders laugh off such comments.
“Every Congressman and his uncle has been saying this for so long. It is so boring to keep intervening in the judicial process,” says a dismissive Pradhan. “Modi has let nothing, not even party affiliations, affect his efforts to bring development to the state of Gujarat. He didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and when it came to reaching his goal, he never bothered about ruffling feathers or antagonising those who stood in his way,” he explains. BJP leaders have long argued that the deployment of forces against rioters in 2002 was much swifter than in previous riots; and that several Hindus also having died in police firing demonstrates the alacrity of the state administration. Besides, they argue, Sangh affiliates that tend to instigate anti-minority violence have been brought to book and systematically sidelined in the state since 2002.
Fighting the 2002 demon has been no mean task for Modi, especially in its immediate aftermath. On Prime Minister Vajpayee’s special plane to Goa—where he was to attend a conclave of the BJP’s National Executive Council starting on 12 April 2002—the BJP patriarch discussed a demand raised by the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, an NDA ally: that Modi be sacked as the CM of Gujarat. The leaders Vajpayee consulted included Jaswant Singh, his NSA Brajesh Mishra and Arun Shourie. By the time the plane touched down in Goa, the decision was clear: Modi had to go.
Modi, ever the astute politician, knew that the odds were stacked against him. But he was determined to overcome them: he tendered his resignation as CM to the Council, offering to work for the party organisation. No one any less tenacious could have overcome such stiff obstacles, within and outside, recalls a BJP leader. But Modi did. His ‘resignation’ was rejected by the BJP’s high-level body. He was backed to the hilt by N Venkaiah Naidu, who was party president at the time, apart from Jaitley and the late Pramod Mahajan. “He almost went down, people thought. But he didn’t,” says a BJP leader who was present at the Goa conclave.
Now, for the next Prime Minister of India, the race to this post began long ago. Until as recently as December 2012, Modi was seen as ‘not yet ready’ for the top post’s candidacy by many senior leaders of the 34-year-old Right- wing party. An Ahmedabad-based Congress leader says he secretly admires Modi for his “single-minded pursuit of orchestrating his rise and working non-stop towards achieving his goal”. He says that just when it looked his power was about to slip away, he got more of it. He concedes that it was after his re-election in 2012 that Modi took the national centrestage. “Until then,” he adds, “he faced challenges from within his party, both in Gujarat and the rest of India. You [in the media] might say that Central agencies were after his life. What about his own party leaders and rivals? Why is nobody talking about it?”
True, much loathed by some and much loved by many others, Modi is as famous as he is controversial. While his detractors, within and outside his party, contend that he was desperate to become more and more powerful to hide the ‘sins of his past’, a reference to the 2002 Gujarat riots under his watch, his admirers argue that he is where he is now despite relentless efforts to vilify him. Apart from attempts to corner Modi over his alleged inaction in 2002 and the reportedly numerous ‘staged encounter killings of terrorists’ in the state over the past decade, there have been sustained efforts by a section of leaders within his party to contain his national ambitions.
Modi’s so-called ‘stubborn nature’ has meant that he is either wildly popular or intensely hated within his own party. In his early years in the BJP, he was aligned with Gujarat’s former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, a man who later became a bitter opponent of his. He had waged a protracted battle for supremacy in Gujarat with Shankersinh Vaghela, now a Congress leader who was a close friend of Modi in the 1970s. According to an apocryphal story, Modi once sneaked into a jail in Bhavnagar where Vaghela was lodged during the Emergency in disguise to meet him and other RSS volunteers. While his friends in the BJP see this ability to “adapt and detach himself from permanent alliances” as a hallmark of Modi’s political acumen, critics such as Pravin Mishra see it as a form of duplicity that exposes the BJP leader’s diabolical nature—which he claims was “on full display in the case of all leaders such as the late Haren Pandya, Vaghela, and Advani, his former mentor”. Adds Mishra, “Modi is unpredictable and ruthless and never has a permanent friend. He has used people for his gain.”
BJP leaders deny such charges, insisting that Modi is ambitious and has never tried to hide it. “He is a very task- oriented person… After all, being ambitious is not bad. It is good,” says the second BJP leader, echoing Ayn Rand’s philosophy of the virtue of selfishness.
The most defining moment of Modi’s career was the triumph of the December 2012 Gujarat Assembly polls when the BJP won 115 of the 182 seats, in a hat-trick. Though there were murmurs of opposition from a handful of BJP leaders—including Sushma Swaraj and others— in pitching Modi for PM, within a few months, the RSS veered round to the idea that Modi as a PM candidate made sense, politically.
The most vilified leader of the BJP soon emerged as the biggest hope for the comatose party, which had been out of power at the Centre for more than eight years and been buffeted by crises in such states as Karnataka. It had done very badly in Uttar Pradesh and the entire north of the country in the 2009 General Election as well as in several state elections. The NDA, the coalition it led, also saw huge cracks.
Then the RSS prevailed. Modi’s well-wishers in the party, including Jaitley, managed to convince the RSS top brass that Modi alone could bring together a by-now disparate BJP and breathe new life into the organisation by energising cadres. Mohan Bhagwat, whose father Madhukar Rao Bhagwat was Modi’s mentor in the RSS, was until then insistent that the Gujarat strongman rehabilitate his rival within the party, Sanjay Joshi. Modi argued that no such ‘rehabilitation’ was possible because Joshi had tirelessly campaigned against him in the past, to the extent of destabilising the party’s state unit along with Vaghela. Modi never forgave Joshi, who was allegedly responsible for rumours that strained Modi’s ties with former CM Keshubhai Patel. Patel was away in the US when Vaghela flew 47 MLAs to a Khajuraho hotel and dethroned Patel with the blessings of the likes of Joshi. Finally, Bhagwat agreed that Modi should be the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Jaitley found support from an unexpected quarter, from party president Singh, in backing Modi’s candidacy. By then, Modi had kicked off a campaign on his own, starting with his speech in Hindi on 20 December 2012, in a departure of sorts from the customary speech in Gujarati, emphasising that his focus of activity had shifted from Gujarat to the entire country.
Once the RSS was convinced of Modi’s potential as India’s PM, Jaitley and others took the lead in persuading even the sulking paterfamilias LK Advani, who wanted to lead the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign again. The lawyer- politician argued with Advani that going for a presidential form of election, pitting Modi against Rahul, would pull in more votes and seats for the saffron party. With Suresh Soni of the RSS parleying with the likes of Advani on the issue, a solution seemed in sight.
Finally, in June last year at the Goa conclave of the party, Modi was named ‘chief campaigner’ for the 2014 election. Advani skipped the meeting, citing ill-health and sparking off public mirth on social media (‘What did Advani sing to Modi? You give me fever’). Within months, the Gujarat Chief Minister, who had used ‘the Gujarat model of development’ as a poll plank in his much-touted Sadbhawana Yatra, was named the party’s prime ministerial candidate. By then, he had already chosen a number of technocrats and wonderkids—such as Rajesh Jain, Arvind Gupta, Prashant Kishor, Pratik Doshi and others— to run the BJP campaign. “He is very particular about discipline and getting results. He is very hardworking. In that sense, he is a perfect product of the RSS. How can RSS not have lapped up his candidacy at such a crucial time?” asks a BJP leader.
Incidentally, another turning point in Modi’s life was his decision to get closely involved with the RSS and becoming less active at the Ramakrishna Mission. Piqued by constant questioning about his personal life by his neighbours in Vadnagar, he stopped visiting his home village and started working at a canteen in Ahmedabad run by his uncle. Soon, while he was in his mid-twenties, he moved into Hedgewar Bhavan in Ahmedabad where one of his early mentors, ‘Vakil Sahib’ Lakshmanrao Inamdar, had been staying with some 15 others. Modi made tea and cooked for the RSS campaigners, besides mopping the nine rooms in the Bhavan and washing his and Vakil Sahib’s clothes. By 1978, Modi had already become a sambhaag pracharak, a regional organiser, working in Surat, Kheda, Valsad and Vadodara, travelling widely across north India, reading voraciously, and holding debates. Prahalad Patel, who taught Modi Sanskrit in school, vouches that Modi was interested in debate and theatre at a young age though he was an average student. Notably, in 1987, Modi, by now an astute organiser who had befriended BJP strongman Advani, successfully steered a surprise poll triumph for the BJP against the Congress in the Ahmedabad Municipal polls in which the party won two-thirds of all seats. Advani, who inducted Modi into the BJP from the RSS, was to play a crucial role in Modi’s ascent in the organisation despite stiff opposition from the likes of Vaghela who even got Modi banished from the state several times, first in 1992 and then in 1995. With such political pushes and pulls playing in the background, Modi went on to succeed as a party leader in charge of states such as Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir from 1996 to 2001, the year he was named Chief Minister of Gujarat. In an interview, he once referred to those years as the ‘most productive phase’ of his life. It is no coincidence that this was the period that saw the exit of his avowed rival Vaghela from the BJP.
SCRIPTED TO PERFECTION
The RSS needed to stay relevant at a time when more than half of India’s population was under the age of 25 and 66 per cent under 35. For someone who had gone gung-ho about the ‘the immense possibilities of computers’ as early as the mid-1990s, Modi was seen as a suitable boy. His economic model of development had already been feted by the likes of globalisation buffs such as Jagdish Bhagwati. Vibrant Gujarat, a showpiece event meant to sell Gujarat to global investors, had become a success thanks partly to the global PR agency hired for the purpose, Apco. The script for his ascent was ready with Sadbhavan Yatra, launched ahead of the 2012 state polls, to hardsell himself as a doer and hard-edged leader who could preside over India’s growth in the 21st century. The Tata Group, one of India’s biggest conglomerates, had started operations in Gujarat after troubles in West Bengal. Ratan Tata, its then chairman, had been reluctant to join hands with a much-maligned Modi. An official who had accompanied Modi to the airport to receive the Tata honcho recalls how Modi broke the ice. “I know that you do not like me enough. You just come and do whatever you want to,” Modi said, positioning himself as the flagbearer of a ‘modernisation’ drive envisaged by the RSS’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay, one of the most prominent leaders of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the BJP’s forerunner, and an icon for the likes of Modi.
Modi and team also scrutinised the strengths and weaknesses of the Congress-led coalition and had consulted, as early as in May 2012, foreign PR agents who had worked in the Obama Campaign on the likely strategies of the UPA. The rest, as we now know, is history.
THE ROLLER COASTER
“Modi’s landslide victory in Varanasi could be a rude shock to many of our journalists who were talking about a tough fight in a ‘three-cornered contest’,” says a BJP leader based in Varanasi, where Modi, taking a break from his whirlwind tour of the country, spent just eight hours and 40 minutes to canvass votes for himself. Another BJP leader calls statements that have emanated from Varanasi about ‘tough battles’ and a ‘Modi versus Kejriwal faceoff’ as the rambling of people who often go by announcements and not facts. Modi was leaps ahead, he says, because of his preparations. Modi had begun his campaign long before he was named to the post by the BJP, he avers. “Winning over corporates, appealing to farmers, striking a chord with the middle classes and the younger generation through meetings in colleges, etcetera, over the past few years were all part of that comprehensive campaign,” adds this leader.
Modi also understood very clearly that having a team to assess data from polling booths across the country was crucial to ensure that the BJP had an edge. A north Indian constituency for Modi to contest was also chosen more than a year in advance. The logic of Modi’s contesting Varanasi was not only that it’s a city holy to Hindus, but also that Modi’s war-room led by Amit Shah anticipated that his candidacy would help the BJP gain seats across Poorvanchal, an entire belt that sprawls across eastern UP and Bihar.
Simultaneously, Operation Target the Youth began in right earnest. In February last year, just over a month after he won the polls in Gujarat—and months before he was named campaign chief by his party—Modi took his message to key campuses in highly televised events. He addressed students and faculty of Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce and harped on the need for good governance in the country. Similarly, within a month of his nomination as BJP campaign spearhead, he spoke to students at Pune’s Fergusson College and stole the thunder by discussing threadbare ‘modernisation of education’. His talk drew much applause, even though it came within days of his controversial remark that the pain he felt after the Gujarat riots was how one would feel if a puppy came under a car’s wheel. His popularity among the upper and middle-classes continued to rise despite charges of a ‘fascist’ style of functioning—such as having Facebook users hauled off to police stations for making comments against him. There were ‘alarmist’ cries that if Modi became PM, India would be back to the days of Samizdat, the Russian expression for the dissemination of censored literature through undercover documents.
Getting close confidant Amit Shah, who is expected to play a crucial role in the dispensation, as party in-charge of Uttar Pradesh was a milestone in the Modi campaign for 2014 in more ways than one. Having lost no election under his supervision, this 49-year-old was BJP President Rajnath Singh’s nominee for the post, not Modi’s. But Modi stood up to defend Shah when a few senior leaders such as Swaraj opposed the nomination. Until then, Modi had not backed Shah directly at party fora. The moment he did it, the opposition melted away. “How long can you back this man?” Swaraj had asked before.
Targeting Shah was also a way of targeting Modi, and with all his political cunning, Modi recognised it only too well. Open had earlier reported that key Cabinet ministers in the Congress- led UPA regime had hatched a conspiracy to nail Shah in a ‘fake encounter’ case as part of an effort to neutralise Modi ahead of the General Election. However, the CBI chief, who was solicited for his ‘cooperation’, refused to play ball.
When Shah arrived in Uttar Pradesh last year, the party organisation was in the doldrums with the top leadership cut off from the grassroots-level organisation. Reviving the party was a huge challenge. It was then that Shah backed the ‘antidote’ that was suggested by a few leaders: Modi as the BJP’s candidate from Varanasi. Shah acted swiftly, appointing committees at booth levels and travelling to the country’s hinterland to get feedback from the lowest units of the party. The BJP, which won only 10 seats last time in the country’s most populous state that accounts for more Lok Sabha seats than any other, wanted to post its top score ever this time around.
Shah, now 49, was 17 when he first met Modi. Gujarat’s law minister Pradeep Singh Jadeja says Modi deserves the credit for making the most of Shah’s abilities—in battering the Congress inch by inch in Gujarat, first by challenging the grand old party’s hegemony over rural banks and sport bodies. Of the 28 elections—to the state Assembly and various local bodies—that Shah has fought since 1989, he has not lost a single one. “This association [between Modi and Shah] is going to get thicker now. After all, the credit for the stellar performance in UP goes to Shah,” says the first BJP leader. Shah, according to sources, will also rein in the organisation as Modi plans to forge ahead with India’s modernisation.
From the grimy railway platforms of Vadnagar to the grandeur of Raisina Hill, the pinnacle of the country’s political power, it has been such a long, lone journey for Narendra Damodardas Modi.