[ Photo: Narendra Modi's electio would spell the bad news for India's legacy]
By Sajeda Momin in Calcutta
Much like Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher, who recently died, you either love him or hate him, but you cannot ignore him! I am talking about Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of the Gujarat, a state in western India, who has been unofficially anointed the prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the country goes to the polls next year.
A la Mrs Thatcher, Modi has been able to galvanise his party workers and allow them to dream that under his leadership they will finally be able to give the ruling Congress party and its allies a run for their money at the hustings. A fundamentalist right-wing leader with his antecedents in the BJP’s ideological anchor, the Rashtriya SwaymSevak Sangh (RSS) which would like to see India turned into a Hindu state from the pluralist democracy that it is today, Modi appeals to party workers because they have seen him win three consecutive elections in Gujarat with his jingoistic rhetoric. Modi is seen as a strong leader who brooks no opposition and who has over the last 15 years slowly swept all possible opponents in Gujarat out of his path. His ability to put a spin on his actions and win elections has made him incredibly popular in the BJP, where he is seen as the strongest vote-catcher in the current leadership.
Until now the BJP was led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, who were considered the founding fathers of the party and its tallest leaders. Vajpayee was seen as the softer face of the BJP and became prime minister three times; each time the party was able to forge winning coalitions.
Advani was the hard-man who worked at the grass roots and who kept the party organisation running smoothly. Today Vajpayee is suffering from ill-health and has been out of circulation for a few years. The octogenarian Advani, who was PM candidate in the last election (2009), was forced to step down from the post of party president accepting responsibility for the poll debacle.
Since then the second rung leaders in the BJP feel his days are over and he should make way for a younger leader. Modi’s three-time win and his spin of projecting himself as the face of Gujarat’s development and prosperity has made him the natural choice in the party. His supporters keep claiming that he has caught the imagination of the younger generation and considering that more than half of the Indian population is under the age of 35 years of age, they are hoping that the ‘excitement’ will translate into votes.
Just as Modi has ‘groupies’ who consider him the ‘great white hope’ who will bring victory to the BJP at the hustings, there are just as many who loathe Modi and consider him the most divisive leader that India has produced so far. Leading the pack, ironically, is Advani, Modi’s political mentor and once his staunchest supporter. Advani had moulded Modi in his own image and on his many rath yatras (road rallies), Modi was always by Advani’s side. It was Advani who suggested that the electoral novice Modi be made Chief Minister of Gujarat and in turn Modi ensured that Advani always contested and won from Gandhinager, the state capital.
After the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2001 in which Modi was accused of orchestrating, some leaders in the BJP including Vajpayee, felt that Modi should be removed from the chief ministership. At this point it was Advani who fought for and saved Modi his job. But today he is ruing the day he did that as the monster has now become bigger than Dr Frankenstein.
By becoming the chief of the campaign committee, a stepping stone to being appointed the prime ministerial candidate, Modi dashed Advani’s ambition of ever becoming the Prime Minister of India. All the other second rung leaders in the party who also owe their careers to Advani have left their mentor’s side and are now supporting the man who they feel will change their fortune.
The anointment of Modi has also ended a 17-year-long alliance between the BJP and the Janata Dal (United). After the anti-Muslim pogrom, Modi became a political pariah for some of the BJP’s electoral allies who have large numbers of Muslim voters. Nitesh Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, who heads a coalition with the BJP, has prevented Modi from campaigning in his state and has over the last decade kept his distance, unwilling to share the same dias as Modi.
Apart from Muslim voters for whom Modi is an untouchable thanks to the blood he has on his hands, secular Hindus also find him divisive and distasteful. For them if Modi was to become the prime minister it would be the end of the secular, plural and inclusive India that they know and love. For the BJP the die has now been cast and it is unlikely that from now till next year any major changes will be made. What remains to be seen is whether voters are as bowled over by Modi’s spin-doctoring as his party workers have been so far.
Sajeda Momin is a Senior Journalist based in Calcutta