Delhi is still far from Gandhinagar
'How are you going to deal with Advani'? This was the first question I asked BJP president Rajnath Singh when I met him at a hotel when he visited...
Rajnath Singh told media persons, immediately after landing in Hyderabad, that Modi is the most popular politician in the country today. He stopped short of naming the Gujarat strongman as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP. Singh must have thought that he should talk about Modi as a clarification of the party's position in the light of Advani's remarks in Bhopal. He left me in no doubt that he would be steering the Modi project out of ambiguity at Goa where a three-day meet is scheduled from June 7. Office-bearers would be meeting on the opening day, followed by the national executive committee meeting. The finale would be a workers' meet on Sunday evening where Modi is going to be the star speaker.
Rajnath Singh looked extremely confident that all senior leaders would fall in line. When I commented that Sushma Swaraj is more popular in Telangana than any other national leader of the BJP, he said that both Sushma and Modi would be campaigning for the party in this part of the country. All the top leaders would ultimately respect the opinion of the party leaders and rank-and-file across the country, he maintained.
The BJP president would be pushing for nominating Modi as chief of the BJP Election Campaign Committee at the national executive. On Wednesday, Rajnath sent Modi, who was in Delhi to attend chief ministers' conference, to Advani. Modi had hearty discussion with his mentor and sought his blessings. When Vajpayee wanted to ask Modi to step down after the riots in 2002, reminding the latter of 'Raja dharma', it was Advani who supported the Gujarat chief minister and dissuaded the then Prime Minister from pursuing the line.
To be fair to Advani, who is known to be a free and frank communicator, he did not mean anything negative about Modi in his Bhopal speech either. It was not the first time that he had praised Chouhan for developing a backward State. He also gave Modi his due by saying that Modi had taken Gujarat, which was already a developed State, further on the growth trajectory. At the end of the day, Advani is understood to have accepted the name of Modi as chief of the BJP Campaign Committee, albeit with a rider that there shall also be an Election Management Committee to attend to day-to-day matters of electioneering in States like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi where polls are due later this year. But whatever said or done by Advani, that is sought to be interpreted, by not only the media but also some BJP leaders and RSS intellectuals, rather uncharitably, as an expression of a sneaking ambition of an old man whose hunger for power is not satiated.
One feels sorry for Advani, once praised as the Loh Purush and the charioteer, who brought the BJP from a two-seat presence in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to a prominent position in a matter of a decade by literally sweating it out. Vajpayee jocularly said in Lok Sabha on BJP strength at that time, "Hum do, hamaare do". In politics, as in life, it happens to everyone who overstays his welcome. Mahatma Gandhi was considered impractical and ignored by his own close followers like Nehru and Patel while negotiating with the British on transfer of power. NT Rama Rao was sidelined when he was perceived by his own children as a threat to their party and power. Advani too has had to face the moment of truth and abandon his ambition for the elusive mantle, making way for Modi, as suggested by foreign journalist Francois Gautier.
Modi needs Advani's clearance for a smooth transition from Gandhinagar to Delhi. He has to win at home before hoping to vanquish the Congress and conquer the crown. It is not only Advani who had to bless Modi and bear. The remote controllers at Nagpur too are forced to grin and bear. For, they have no other winning horse. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, whom Advani compared to Vajpayee for his humility, cannot be a match to Modi although the former is a thorough RSS chief minister. The shy and rustic politician cannot inspire the neo-middle class.
Although Modi's record in office is mixed after the hype is discounted, he has convinced urban India, with his media-savvy profile and the clever use of 3D technology that he leveraged in the last Assembly elections in Gujarat, that he is the deliverer whom the country has been waiting for. RSS leadership knows that Modi cannot be dictated to. He believes in Moditva which is different from Hindutva. That his self-confidence borders on arrogance and his lifestyle is far from that of a pracharak is well known to the Parivar. As one analyst put it, if Modi is India, Chouhan is Bharat.
Modi has scored over Advani on two grounds: One, he has projected himself as a modern politician who is trusted by corporate India as well as software India and the shining part of India. Modi will soon unravel his plans to court farmers who matter most in terms of votes and elections. Reliable sources say that he will be reducing his appearances in the company of corporate honchos and increase his interaction with poor peasants. This is part of his image makeover exercise. With the urban middle class as good as in his pocket, he is now trying to lure farmers, the sections perilously neglected by Chandrababu Naidu, the TDP chief and the first reformist chief minister in the country, for which he had to pay a heavy price. Modi is trying to avoid those pitfalls.
Two, Modi has succeeded, where Advani could not, in dealing with the RSS. Modi realized, as had Advani even earlier, that it was not Advani's Ramajanmabhoomi movement of 1992, which culminated in the destruction of the disputed structure at Ayodhya, that made it possible for the BJP to capture power at the Centre; it was the image of Vajpayee, an astute statesman, who complained when the structure was demolished that there was no place for a moderate voice in the party, who was responsible for BJP's victories in 1998 and 1999.
When Advani tried in 2005 to move towards the centre from extreme right to acquire the image of a moderate politician so that he might be acceptable to NDA partners after 2009 elections, like Vajpayee had done 10 years earlier, he was hounded by the hardliners. The former deputy prime minister's "Jinnah was secular" remark had proved to be his undoing. He never recovered from its consequences. The RSS bosses and the Rightist intellectuals did not relent till Manmohan Singh was sworn in as prime minister for the second term.
The reaction of Nagpur in the case of NaMo, as Narendra Modi is nicknamed, is different from what it was in the case of Advani. In his anxiety to live down the "tainted by communal riots of 2002" image, the Gujarat chief minister had distanced himself from the local RSS leaders. Many RSS workers have been in jails in Gujarat as convicts or under-trials in the riot cases. Modi's role in the riots would remain suspect forever notwithstanding the conclusions the Special Investigative Team (SIT) arrived at or the judgments of the courts.
Kingshuk Nag, a senior journalist who was the bureau chief of 'The Times of India' at Ahmedabad at the time of the pogrom, in his recent book, 'The NaMo Story, a political life', tried to separate the man from the myth that Modi had assiduously built with the help of not very discerning leaders of his party and the local media. Slogans like "dekho dekho kaun aayaa, Gujarat ka sher aaya" greeted Modi at his election meetings.
Nag says the decision to bring charred bodies (from Sabarmati Express train at Godhra) to Ahmedabad was taken at a meeting presided over by Modi, despite being told it was ill-advised. The bodies were brought in the wee hours of February 28, 2002, and handed over to Vishwa Hindu Parishad volunteers, and not to the family members. The rioting started within hours on the same day and went on for three gory days. Modi cannot erase the scar from public perception altogether. He has been trying to divert the attention of the people to development by openly espousing the corporate India. In doing so, he abandoned the Hindutva hardliner image and created for himself the image of an icon of growth.
A one-time shaakhaa prachaarak, who is now a domineering and bulldozing politician, has been seeking to overpower the same Nagpur patriarchs who once nurtured him. While the RSS was in hot pursuit of Advani, it is using kid gloves to deal with Modi. It is swallowing its most important policy formulation of collective leadership and allowing its people in the BJP to promote a personality cult. Some intellectuals of Hindutva vintage have described Modi as Indira Gandhi of the BJP.
Indira was above the Congress and the Congress was where Indira was; in the words of Dev Kant Barua, a shameless president of the Congress, Indira was India. So would Modi like to be described. It is the personality, not the ideology of a party, that would influence the voting preferences of young and media-driven India, according to them.
The BJP may bite the Modi bullet. He might succeed in getting anointed as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. But it is not going to be that easy to actually become a prime minister. Calling Modi a 'polarising personality' has become a commonplace. In his exhortations about the redemption of the republic through Moditva, Modi never mentioned about the riots, leave alone expressing regrets or apology.
Muslims in Gujarat may be subdued out of fear or helplessness, but the 15 per cent of the Indian voters who are Muslims would once again collectively vote for either the Congress, as they did in 2004 and 2009, or an alternative formation. The new front may comprise Mulayam's Samajwadi Party, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party and YS Jaganmohan Reddy's YSRCP, since MIM is already on its side. If Muslims think that they have been taken for granted by the Congress, then they may vote for non-Congress and non-BJP parties which might get together, post-elections, to form a front. The game is still wide open.
When Vajpayee wanted to ask Modi to step down after the riots in 2002, reminding the latter of 'Raja dharma', it was Advani who supported the Gujarat chief minister and dissuaded the then Prime Minister from pursuing the line.