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Rally Row

Narendra Modi matters

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CONTROVERSY KING: Modi astride a horse in a suit and dark glasses in Gandhinagar intrigued political observers, but it didn't do much for his hardline image. And with his recent faux pas at a Patna rally, he has not only embarrassed his colleagues but also underlined the fact that 'the saffron strongman' may be losing his spark in politics

He has looked the part. Steely eyed, unsmiling, an inflexible jaw line. In the world that Narendra Modi inhabits, any sign of weakness could be a fatal error. Any suggestion that he is less than what he appears to be would give his critics - and they are legion - just the flicker of hope that Modi is, after all, vulnerable. And the weak don't last the week in politics.

Modi lives up to the title of the "saffron strongman, " conferred on him by his liberal detractors, with ease. A primary reason for his nonchalance is Gujarat's strong economic indicators, endorsed by business celebrities - recall the confidence with which Ratan Tata chose Gujarat as the new home for his Nano factory. Again, on the ideological front, Modi has been very good at projecting himself as an uncompromising voice on terrorism.

So, when Modi announced his arrival in Patna last week for the BJP national executive with ubiquitous advertisements in local dailies, speaking of Gujarat's generous help to Bihar during the Kosi floods and a file photo of him and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar holding hands in a symbol of unity and friendship, it was not out of line with his studied effort to project a larger-than-life image.

Good for him, but not for Nitish, as it turned out. Nitish angrily promised to return Modi's monetary help, and he even called off a planned dinner for BJP leaders, while branding the advertisements "unethical and uncivilised. "

The intensity of the reaction seems to have taken Modi by surprise. People who interacted with him in the wake of Nitish Kumar's angry outburst found Modi genuinely flummoxed.

But should he have been? With state elections bearing down in a matter of months, this ad blitz was ill-timed. Nitish Kumar has painstakingly wooed a sizable section of "backward" Muslims in Bihar over the years. He has given them job reservation and political empowerment, and has carefully positioned himself as their well-wisher. His obvious effort has been to blunt the Muslim antipathy towards his political partner in the state, the BJP, and neutralise the advantage enjoyed by his "secular" rivals, RJD and LJP leaders Lalu Prasad and Ramvilas Paswan.

Modi's self-promotion through these full page ads, beaming while holding aloft Kumar's hand in warm camaraderie, was obviously tearing into this nonthreatening image that Nitish has built for himself amongst Muslims. Modi - an astute politician - would surely have realised this.

So, why was he seeking to queer the pitch for his party's ally in Bihar? Nitish Kumar's wariness of Modi isn't new. He has consistently kept his distance from Modi. In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election, he told the BJP brass to keep the saffron icon away from the state. Yet, the more Nitish has shunned him, the more Modi seems to have been keen to force himself into the frame.

At the NDA rally in Punjab, where the Modi-Nitish photo was taken, the Gujarat CM had walked across the dais to clasp the Bihar CM's hand in front of the full glare of media. Nitish smiled weakly as hundreds of flash bulbs popped, recording his politically dangerous liaison.

Often, the urge for acceptance can be as much personal as it is politically driven. Several leaders who have made the cut by espousing "hardline" politics have been tempted to recast themselves in a more middle-of-the-road image, possibly because extreme political postures in India can take them only up to a point and no further.

L K Advani, for instance, realised this and sought to temper his fiery Ram-bhakt image with statements like "December 6 was the saddest day in my life" and the more infamous "Jinnah-is-secular" episode in Pakistan.

Modi's experience is not very different from his leader's. He wishes to talk of Gujarat's development, of high-yielding crops, drip irrigation, industrial clusters, and so on, but none of these accomplishments takes the focus away from his controversial role during the post-Godhra riots. This has seriously crippled his rise as an all-India leader.

Modi is probably not out to change his plumage altogether. It is his both his strength as well as weakness that he seems most convincing when targeting the politically liberal sections of society in the ideological war he has been fighting for years now.

Yet, some signs of change have been evident. These pertain mainly to his personal style. For instance, a set of photos were released last year showing Modi astride a horse in a suit, dark glasses and a red muffler (a throwback to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin bare-breasted on a black steed?). The pictures intrigued political observers. Why was Modi, an earthy practitioner of politics, promoting this obviously elitist image? Whatever else, Modi does not really have to have a to-the-manor-born hauteur.

Though the Gujarat government has denied it, the Bihar advertisements were issued at Modi's behest. His party colleagues point out that it was an individualistic and self-centred act. Some said it was in keeping with his belief - never articulated - that he was larger than the party. Why else would he seek to promote himself in Bihar, when the upshot of this misadventure was a body blow to the BJP's national executive meet? Its political resolution, it attacks on the UPA government, and its future plans were obscured by a haze of controversy and bad publicity. Even at the public rally, the focus was on what Advani & Co would say about ally Nitish. It demoralised the party cadre in a state where an election is due in four months.

It brought no credit to Modi either. Though he put on a brave show, the episode would have brought home to Modi his serious limitations outside Gujarat. He can still draw on the hurt pride syndrome, but this time his critics are bound to point out that he doesn't exactly kindle faith in allies - in fact, he can rub them the wrong way. And in this era of coalition politics, that would be a big handicap. At earlier BJP meets, Modi's arrival would often be greeted with a flurry of questions on his cases and other controversies. The leader would simply stand before the mikes and cameras with folded hands and say absolutely nothing till the crowd parted. It was in a way a statement of the man he is, unremitting and unflinching.

The Patna fiasco might bring home to Modi that he could be losing his sense of timing and his sharp sixth sense for politics. Already, the Lok Sabha polls were a setback as the confidence of a BJP sweep in Gujarat proved misplaced. He has been helped by some incompetent ticket allocation by Congress in subsequent bypolls, but the gap is closer than what it was.

Modi's backing of lawyer Ram Jethmalani in the Rajya Sabha elections despite the opposition of most other BJP leaders is telling. With Advani playing the supporting cast, Modi got the BJP parliamentary board to field Jethmalani as its candidate in a dicey election from Rajasthan. The reason, party sources say, was the hope that the master lawyer would prove to be an intrepid counsel in court when cases against the Gujarat government are being keenly argued.

A quintessential loner, with no real friends, Modi just about makes it to the category of the socially adjusted. It's said he can be charming when he wants to, but more often he revels in the glow of power and invincibility. This has won him many admirers, especially when it became apparent that there was no challenge to him in Gujarat. In the state, he can, and does, deal on his own terms. The issue is: can he do this elsewhere? The Patna episode shows that he can't - at least not yet.

When Modi stood up to speak at last Sunday's BJP rally in Patna, right after braving Nitish Kumar's fusillade, he fell back on his "maut ka saudagar" line to target Sonia Gandhi over the Bhopal gas tragedy, asking who let the then Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson out of India. Good lines, but it did not quite work for him. This time, the Congress responded by flashing a MoU that the Gujarat government was considering with Carbide's new owners Dow Chemicals.

It seems Modi will have to watch his step. His swagger and style may still be there, but his political sense seems to be faltering.

TALKING POINTS


APRIL 27

At the launch of his book compiling his speeches on B R Ambedkar, Modi said the dalit icon had converted to Buddhism as the religion was native to India rather than Islam and Christianity which were not. "He converted to a religion, Buddhism, which was originated in Hindustan like Hinduism, " he said

JUNE 9


Advertisements in Bihar dailies proclaiming progress in integrating minorities in the mainstream in Gujarat showed photos of Muslim girls from Azamgarh. The photograph was misleading as the girls were from UP

JUNE 11


Large advertisements of Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar holding hands and claims of Gujarat donating generously towards Kosi flood relief. The ads anger Kumar who calls them 'unethical and uncivilised'

A WELL-ENDORSED PRODUCT


His politics may be divisive, but Narendra Modi has not lacked celebrity backers. Big business loves him. If a poll were to be conducted among the rich and influential, Modi would beat most other political contenders in popularity ratings. It was, therefore, hardly surprising when at the Vibrant Gujarat meet last year (just before the Lok Sabha polls) industrialists tripped over one another to hail him as PM material.

Anil Ambani led the way saying, "Narendrabhai has done well for Gujarat ... Gujarat has seen progress in all fields under his leadership. Now, imagine what will happen if he leads the nation. "The words were met with applause as investors greeted the leader.

Of course, this was in January, 2009 and the Congress's stunning victory was still a little more than three months away. In fact, the mismatch between corporate praise and popular approval became apparent when in Gujarat the BJP won just 14 to the Congress's 12 Lok Sabha seats. But at the meeting itself, Ambani went on to cull a line from Deewar to quote his father Dhirubhai, who apparently described Modi as a "lambi race ka ghoda".

Not to be outdone, Sunil Bharti Mittal joined Ambani in saying, "Chief minister Modi is known as a CEO, but he is actually not a CEO because he is not running a company or a sector. He is running a state and can also run the nation, "he said as the ringing endorsements were lapped up by a receptive audience.

Bollywood has not been far behind business in beating a path to Modi's door. Recently, Amitabh Bachchan courted controversy and the wrath of "secular" commentators by agreeing to be Gujarat's brand ambassador.

Soon after, a fairly apolitical Ajay Devgn also met Modi, apparently for a solar power project in the state. Fading actor Raveena Tandon offered unstinted praise, saying she was his fan and India needed more leaders like him.

Unfazed by the criticism Bachchan received, Tandon said "We need leaders like you to run this country, " at a function where Modi was present. It would seem Modi is quite a draw with the glam crowd. Clearly, the strong leader image works - at least in boardrooms and Bollywood.

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