Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts, with enthusiastic support from his public relations managers, to project himself as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate trigger unrest in his party and in the National Democratic Alliance it leads and bring his record under scrutiny. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

“A month ago, Modi vs Rahul, a week ago Modi vs Nitish, today Modi vs Advani, tomorrow Modi vs Obama, a month hence Modi vs Gandalf.” @Scarysouthpaw’s tweet was firmly tongue in cheek while drawing up a list of existing and potential adversaries of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the context of his sustained efforts to acquire greater visibility and political centre stage.

Evidently, the effort is to spoof the vast, animated group of Modi fans in social media networks, who project him as the one-point solution to all social and political maladies of India. The point of the Modi fans is taken to quixotic extremes in the tweet with the suggestion that Modi can even match the magical powers of Gandalf, the “wizard” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

While there is indeed an element of caricatured exaggeration in this, there is also little doubt that it provides a broad idea of the tussles that Modi’s recent initiatives have unleashed within his own party, the larger National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heads, and in the national political firmament as a whole. At another level, it also points broadly towards the contours of the Modi campaign, which is being advanced in a hyperbolic narrative, where the leader’s personality is stamped with seemingly supernatural attributes of leadership, administrative skills and vision. Indeed, the 140-character Twitter format cannot capture the details of the Modi narrative with even a modicum of comprehensiveness, but the Chief Minister’s recent forays into different regions of the country and into fora as diverse as the chambers of commerce and the Sivagiri Sree Narayana Guru Mutt have certainly lived up to the suggestions in the tweet.

These forays have marked a high point of the massive public relations (PR) exercise, eagerly backed by large sections of the big business and several media enterprises that have been built around Modi over the past few years. In the days to come, the PR machinery could come up with new exercises that create many more crescendo moments. For the time being, however, the thrust of these forays and the PR exercise has been to underscore three points. First, that Modi is a leader with new ideas and with a different perspective on governance. Second, that he can address the varied needs and interests of different sections of society in spite of the stigma of genocide of Muslims that took place in Gujarat under his chief ministership in 2002. Third, that these projected attributes have been accepted by the people, making Modi “the strongest candidate” for the Prime Minister’s post in the next elections.

Undoubtedly, all these points have found some resonance among segments of the targeted audience across the country, particularly among the rank and file of the BJP. According to sources in the senior leadership of the BJP, a corporate house close to Modi had commissioned a nationwide survey, which suggested that the saffron party could win as many as 190 seats in the next Lok Sabha elections if Modi was projected as the BJP’s prime ministerial choice. “The figure, in the absence of such a projection, is below 160. This is being widely circulated within the lower echelons of the party, leading to a growing clamour to officially project Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. The projection has undoubtedly enthused the BJP cadre in the northern States of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, where a combination of Hindutva and development is being perceived as winner for the party,” a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh said. Many other leaders and activists of the party added that the Modi campaign had resonances outside the party, too, particularly among a sizable segment of the middle classes.

But along with this, the divisive nature of projecting Modi has come to the fore forcefully at different levels of the polity and society. Some of the most conspicuous manifestations of the divisiveness have been within the BJP-led NDA and within the BJP itself. Even as the foray of Modi into different parts of the country was taking place, Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asserted that the NDA, of which his party is a constituent, should be led by a secular leader who was committed to upholding “Raj Dharma”, the cherished principles of righteous governance. While Nitish Kumar did not mention Modi by name, the reference was obviously to the advice given by former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after the 2002 Gujarat riots, that Modi should uphold “Raj Dharma” and “and not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion”. The JD(U) National Executive, held in New Delhi on April 13 and 14, asked the BJP to choose its prime ministerial candidate by the end of 2013 and insisted that the person chosen for the post should have secular credentials.

The Shiv Sena, another long-standing ally of the BJP, also came up with comments that virtually rejected the projection of Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. Making a not-so-indirect reference to the survey figures doing the rounds in the BJP, the Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna stated in an editorial that “declaring someone’s candidature may result in a gain of five to 10 seats but some old allies will leave, costing five to 25 seats”. It went on to warn that “the BJP has the right to name its PM candidate but it cannot do so on its own steam”. Comparing the NDA with Arjuna’s chariot, the editorial pointed out that it is drawn by many horses and that every horse is important. “Or else there will be a different Mahabharata and the chariot wheel will get stuck,” it said. Before his passing in November 2012, Balasaheb Thackeray, the Shiv Sena founder, had said that Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, would be his preferred candidate for the Prime Minister’s post.

Officially, the BJP has not taken a position on the questions raised by its allies, but it is no secret that there is considerable opposition among the top leadership to the possible choice of Modi. Barring Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, and former party president M. Venkaiah Naidu, there are not many takers for the projection of Modi. Veteran leader L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj are firmly opposed to Modi while party president Rajnath Singh is displaying statesman-like qualities by taking everybody along. In his public pronouncements, he has been praising all leaders by turns. Sushma Swaraj, on her part, made it clear that Advani was still one of the top candidates being considered for the position.

RSS not for Modi

The mood in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, is also divided on similar lines. RSS sarsangchalak Mohanrao Bhagwat’s disinclination towards the choice of Modi is no secret within the Sangh Parivar. However, two other senior RSS leaders, Madan Das Devi and Suresh Soni, are considered to have a good equation with Arun Jaitley, who in turn has good relations with Modi. The belief in the Modi camp is that the RSS will not be able to overlook the groundswell of support in Modi’s favour among the BJP rank and file at the time of decision-making.

While all these debates, including the one involving the two allies of the BJP, have only broadly delineated the opposition to Modi without actually naming him, some senior leaders in the NDA such as Sivanand Tiwari of the JD(U) have been more direct and forthcoming. Tiwari told Frontline that the hyperbolic nature of the campaign to thrust Modi to the political centre stage displays the vaulting ambition behind it. “It lays no sanctity on facts or on truth. While analysing, at a conference in Delhi, the ‘development’ that he brought to Gujarat, Modi claimed that he had undone the damage done by the Congress in the State and that work had just started in the State. But barely half an hour before that, at the same conference, the Chief Minister took credit for the Amul dairy, set up originally in 1946 and nurtured to its present successful model since the 1970s under several regimes, including that of the Congress. The leadership given to this cooperative movement by Dr Verghese Kurien is well known. Equally well known is the ignominious treatment Modi meted out to this legendary social entrepreneur after becoming Chief Minister in 2002. He has no qualms about listing enterprises that had made history long before he came to power as part of his own successes,” Tiwari said. He added that this selective appropriation of success stories had been the hallmark of the so-called Modi development saga.

“Of course, in the process the PR machinery seems to have successfully managed to cover up many unpleasant facts about the Modi regime—how the public health infrastructure in Gujarat is in a shambles; how the rate of decline in Gujarat’s infant mortality rate is much lower than the national average; how project implementation has plummeted from 73 per cent in 2003 to 13 per cent in 2011; how Gujarat is lagging behind in per capita income, gross domestic product and foreign direct investment inflows; or the pathetic state of malnutrition and the gender ratio.” However, Tiwari added that he would gladly give credit to Modi for improving Gujarat’s infrastructure in terms of roads and for presenting a more decisive administrative and political posture as compared with leaders of the Congress such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and for winning three consecutive elections. “But that by itself cannot be translated as an approval of his developmental model, which is weighed in favour of promoting corporate interests.”

The JD(U) is not the only party to complain about the appropriation of success stories or smart ideas by Modi. On April 8, Modi made a presentation, which was described as his “complete economic agenda”, at a conference called the Think India Dialogue. The presentation was titled “Why India Needs Less Government and More Governance”. One of the points highlighted by the Chief Minister’s PR machinery as well as by a number of media organisations after the conference was Modi’s P4 idea or the slogan of people-private-public-partnership. Modi outlined this idea as follows: “Good governance is defined by public-private partnership. If we want to implement good governance, we must look to P4—people-private-public partnership. People should be kept in the loop by the government.” The Modi PR machinery and the media went to town projecting it as an original perception. The presentation did not credit anyone with the idea.

Interestingly, the idea had been expressed and delineated by other persons in many fora long before Modi addressed the Think India Dialogue. Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, was quoted in Frontline (October 5, 2012) as saying: “Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and S.P. leader, said that his party was trying to address issues of liberalisation not merely by looking at it as an enterprise involving the private sector and the government but by bringing in the interests of the people at every stage.”

More specifically, in an article published in the New Delhi-based Inclusion magazine in its April-June 2011 issue, A.R. Raju, former Additional Secretary to the Government of Kerala and currently Additional Private Secretary to Minister of State for Home Mullappally Ramachandran, had dealt with the concept in greater detail. The article, titled “Think of GPPP for Inclusive Growth”, stated that it was time PPP was reviewed because it had missed out on the most important component of the developmental model, which is, the common people. Neither Raju nor Akhilesh Yadav was available for comment, but Sivanand Tiwari is of the view that projecting the P4 utterance of Modi as a path-breaking concept is a clear example of overreach in the Modi narrative.

“It would be interesting to probe whether this overreach was on account of the overwrought PR machinery or the oversight of the Chief Minister himself,” Tiwari said.

In the background of these revelations, the Modi saga is beginning to have striking similarities with the India Shining campaign launched by the BJP and the NDA in 2004. That campaign, masterminded by the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, had sought to portray that India was shining in all socio-economic spheres under the stewardship of Prime Minister Vajpayee. Several crores of the party’s and the government’s money was spent on the propaganda blitzkrieg with disastrous election results for the NDA. Nine years later, the BJP’s allies are picking holes in Modi’s development stories. In fact, several BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders consider Nitish Kumar’s development model in Bihar more people-friendly.

Goebbelsian propaganda

The Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore, who has been closely observing Modi’s centre stage campaign, including its manifestations on social media sites, sees definite streams of Goebbelsian propaganda in all this.

“The attempt is to use any argument, whatever its dimensions and authorship, to communicate and enlist groups and communities. Consider this. At a meeting organised jointly in Kolkata by the Indian Chamber of Commerce, the MCC Chamber of Commerce and the Bharat Chamber of Commerce, Modi concluded his interaction with the assertion that he is not a politician but an apolitical person. This, coming from a man who has been with the RSS since his youth and has been a leader of the BJP for several decades. The point is clear: to appeal to those you are addressing, in this case the business persons, and thus advance your march to capture power, any position would be put forth, principles and policies be damned. There is an ingrained undemocratic, fascist streak in this whole approach. But, of course, there are hundreds of thousands of educated and not-so-educated persons in the cyberspace and social networking sites who would lap it up,” Surendra Kishore told Frontline.

Assessing the overall sequence of events and particularly Modi’s centre stage forays, the Lucknow-based political analyst Professor Sudhir Kumar Panwar opined that there was every possibility that this exercise fell within the realm of premature peaking. “Many politicians have fallen prey to this phenomenon in the country’s history. On his part, Modi had no choice but to make his moves at the current juncture. For he also needs time to consolidate his position within the organisation and vis-a-vis the rank and file. That has fetched some limited gains in the form of prominent position the BJP accorded to Modi in the reorganisation of party functionaries. But the tacit demand to declare him the prime ministerial candidate has already resulted in bickering in the NDA as well as in the consolidation of ‘secular forces’ and votes. The over-exposure in the media may also result in the creation of ‘negative shades’ on account of micro-scanning of his ‘development’ plank as well as the ‘autocratic politico-administrative’ style of functioning. Above all, questions about his secular credentials will also keep coming up regularly in the days to come,” he said.

Panwar is of the view that the process of micro-scanning has already started with the emergence of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report castigating the Modi regime for giving undue benefits to big business houses such as Reliance and Essar as well as the mismanagement of drought in vast regions of the State, leading to unprecedented misery among the people. The scrutiny of controversial laws such as the Lokayukta, the Private Universities and Irrigation Bills, as also the re-emergence of the legal tangles of a criminal nature in the form of the protest petition filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of the slain Congress leader Ehsan Jafri, could reinforce the ‘peaking early’ phenomenon and put Modi on the back foot.

Several observers are of the view that the protest petition, relating to the killing of 71 persons, including Ehsan Jafri, at Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society on February 28, 2002, could be particularly tricky for Modi as it argues that the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted to go into the post-Godhra incidents had let off Modi without going through all the evidence and urges that the court take cognisance of this and order his prosecution. The petition, submitted with records, including dispatches of the intelligence department and CDs containing mobile phone call details of February 28, points to Modi as the mastermind of the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims. In the wake of this petition, the Modi government, in an exercise aimed at enhancing its secular credentials, decided to seek the death penalty for former BJP Minister Maya Kodnani, who has been sentenced to 28 years in jail in the Naroda Patiya massacre case. The government may perhaps seek the death sentence for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist Babu Bajrangi, too, who has been sentenced to imprisonment until death in the Naroda Patiya case. Political circles in Gujarat perceive the government’s move against Maya Kodnani as one motivated by the rivalry between Modi and Advani. Whatever the dimensions of this move, in terms of the BJP’s internal politics, a large number of legal and political observers are of the view that the Zakia Jafri petition has the potential to create impediments to Modi’s bid to take centre stage.

However, there is a section in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar which holds the view that the re-emergence of the riot-related cases combined with the new initiatives to present Modi’s developmental model will actually lead to greater polarisation and consolidation on the Hindutva-development theme, leading to far-reaching political benefits. “The support of big corporate houses, who welcome the Modi model of development, along with the Hindutva polarisation that these cases might create could well prove a big winner. If the credit for the victory can be claimed by Modi, nothing can stop his rise to the top position,” said a Delhi-based senior RSS activist.

Even as supporters of Modi harbour such optimism and his detractors in the BJP and the NDA continue to raise questions, a general principle often cited as the cornerstone of leadership in coalition politics has also started doing the rounds in political circles, particularly in the NDA. The bon mot on this is: the leadership question in coalition politics is finally decided not only on the parameter of the highest acceptability among the masses and the support base, but also on the parameter of least unacceptability among the coalition partners. Addressing a question on this theme, a senior RSS leader, who could well play a role in the selection process in the BJP, quipped that Modi did indeed score well in the former quotient, but his unacceptability was certainly not the least in the given political firmament. This despite the magical, superhuman powers that his supporters and followers accord to Narendra Damodardas Modi.