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Waiting to strike
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has pulled out the stops to win every election he has contested ever since he went back to his home state in October 2001 to head the government. But no election has been as crucial as the ongoing assembly polls.
Today, as he stands on the cusp of the next big step in his political career, with a hope and a prayer to finally make the leap from state to national politics, it has become imperative for him to not only win Gujarat 2012 but to sweep so comprehensively that he will be unstoppable. Modi has never hidden his ambition to be something more than a state leader. When he was ordered to replace Keshubhai Patel as CM eleven years ago, he went kicking and screaming. He always hoped that it would be a temporary posting and that he would soon be back at headquarters in Delhi to continue his steady climb up the party hierarchy with the ultimate aim of landing the top job of BJP president. And then who knows, Prime Minister of India one day perhaps? Less than five months after he took charge in Gandhinagar, the 2002 communal violence exploded and Modi's career trajectory changed forever.
Suddenly, he was atop a tiger. From the fires that scorched Gujarat, Modi emerged bigger and stronger, the 'Hindu Hriday Samraat' (emperor of Hindu hearts) with a mass following larger than the charioteer of the Ram mandir movement, L K Advani, could claim. Modi snatched the Hindutva icon crown away from his senior and has held on to it since. But while he reigned supreme in Gujarat, with erstwhile challengers like predecessor Keshubhai Patel, Parvin Togadia of the VHP and Sanjay Joshi of the RSS fallen by the wayside, Modi quickly realised that he had boxed himself into state politics and may never get to realise his larger ambitions. After winning the 2002 assembly polls on the back of the riots, he changed tack five years later to project himself as Mr Development in the 2007 election. The macho image was now encapsulated in slogans describing his "56-inch chest" as Modi flaunted the arrival of Narmada river waters to irrigate fields in north Gujarat, touted the plethora of MOUs he signed for FDI investment in the state and reeled off impressive growth figures. The plan, his aides disclosed during the campaign, was to win the polls with an impressive margin, celebrate the golden jubilee of the formation of Gujarat in 2010 and then move to New Delhi to continue his trek into national politics. Only, that shift never happened. With a resurgent UPA coming back to power for a second consecutive term in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and the youthful figure of Rahul Gandhi looming appealingly on the horizon as the rising star of the Congress, Modi decided it was wiser to stay back in Gujarat and bide his time. Has the time now come? His cheerleaders in the BJP say it has. The plunging image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh coupled with Rahul's disastrous showing in the UP state polls earlier in the year, they say, have created a national leadership vacuum. They believe that Modi is the right person to fill that space. His positioning as a strong, decisive, incorruptible leader who has made Gujarat a showpiece of development will be an irresistible magnet for voters tired of a weak, vacillating, non-performing government. He's what the nation needs and what the BJP too needs after the eminently forgettable tenure of Nitin Gadkari, they insist.
If the matter were put to vote among the rank and file of the BJP, there is no doubt that Modi would win hands down as the most popular choice to lead the party. His connect with the workers was evident at every gathering this year, both the national plenary meet in Mumbai and the national executive meet at Surajkund. He got the most rapturous welcome and the loudest applause.
Unfortunately for Modi, the leadership issue is not something that will be decided by ordinary BJP workers. It's a decision that the RSS will take and the Sangh will weigh many factors before anointing Modi as either party president or as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Modi is Modi himself. His Hindu hawk image does not go down well with allies who have Muslim voters to consider. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has already made it clear that he could pull out of the NDA if Modi is projected as the PM in the next general election.
His personality is another hurdle. He is dominating and has a Lone Ranger style of functioning which is bound to set the fur flying in any coalition arrangement with regional satraps like Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress and Navin Patnaik of the BJD who themselves are imperious and peremptory in their dealings with others.
Modi has many opponents within the BJP too. In fact, the drumbeating by his cheerleaders has wreaked havoc among his peers who are now locked in a bitter factional fight for control. Venkaiah Naidu rushed last week to pour cold water on the hype about Modi as PM after a stray comment from Sushma Swaraj sparked off fresh speculation. Actually, Swaraj was merely replying to a pointed question about Modi's competence to be PM. She could hardly say anything but reply in the affirmative.
Yet, the murmurs refuse to die. Obviously, Modi is looking for greener pastures, having ruled Gujarat for 11 years. The question is: how and when does he make the transition to Delhi? He is probably the natural choice to lead a BJP government. But the party simply doesn't have the national presence at the moment to win a majority on its own, or even cross the 200 mark in the Lok Sabha. At the same time, Modi is hardly a good coalition person in the Vajpayee mould who can lead a power sharing arrangement of disparate parties.
What is clear, however, is that if Modi does score a spectacular victory in Gujarat, he will become a formidable force within the BJP. His opinion will start to matter and the RSS will have no choice but to bring him into the decision-making loop on all issues concerning its political arm. The ground has already been prepared with RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat maintaining regular contact with Modi, directly as well as through interlocutors.
Whether or not Modi shifts to Delhi is immaterial. He will be the powerhouse who decides Gadkari's successor, oversees an organisational overhaul in preparation for the Lok Sabha polls, crafts the BJP's election strategy and distributes the tickets. The importance of the remote control is well understood in the Sangh parivar.
Modi is shrewd enough to understand that the current national political scenario may not be able to accommodate someone like him. He may have to wait till the ground is more fertile for him. Till then, he always has Gujarat. But first, he must win.
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