Beyond toilets: Modi needs a think-tank, shadow cabinet

There are signs of a shift in Narendra Modi's overall messaging where an effort is now being made to soften his Hindutva image. At a meeting yesterday (2 October) in Delhi, he himself referred to his Hindutva image and emphasised that his priorities were "shauchalaya over devalaya", or toilets before places of worship. That he shared the stage with a potential NDA ally, Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam, could not but have helped.

This is all fine, but there is a stage beyond which aspirants for the top job have to move beyond generalities and trite phrases. Image is not only about posture, but substance. Modi needs to remember that he is no longer just one of those scrabbling for the limelight. He sought, fought and got what he wanted. The spotlight is already on him and soon the general homilies that got him here will not get him there - a shot at the job of Prime Minister.

The team and brain's trust that delivered Gujarat for Modi may not be good enough to deliver India. Getting to base camp needs one set of resources; making a bid for Mt Everest needs effort of an entirely different magnitude.

There is one reason why: the kind of scrutiny he will face henceforth will be different from what he faced till recently. The cameras that follow him everywhere will disappear shortly if there isn't greater sophistication in the content of his message.

Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

The team and brain's trust that delivered Gujarat for Modi may not be good enough to deliver India. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Till now, the media was scanning Modi's speeches for "intent". This is why references to "puppy" and "burkha of secularism" and "Hindu nationalism" were picked on for negative comment. That stage is coming to a close. Modi's detractors will now be waiting to pounce on the content.

It's already happening. A few days ago his references to GDP growth under NDA and UPA were off the mark, and P Chidambaram swooped on that statement like a vulture and dented his claims with the telling phrase – a "fake encounter with facts".

A bit earlier Modi got his numbers horribly wrong on how much China spent on education. Again he got skewered by the Congress and the media.

The media is also tiring of his borrowed ideas. At Hyderabad some time back, he tried an addendum to Obama’s “Yes, we can” with a "Yes, we will do." It underwhelmed.

Even the “shauchalaya-devalaya” references - though made by Modi even earlier - are now looking like borrowings from Jairam Ramesh’s references. To be sure, Modi's references were less crude than Ramesh's. Ramesh seemed to imply that there were too many temples that that toilets were more sacred than temples, but no one looks for nuances in these contentious.

One can understand what Modi is trying to do: simplify messaging for the political circuit.

While more of the same is not always bad, the point is Modi is at an inflection point in terms of support from elite opinion - and he simply can't afford to goof up by inattention to detail. In fact, simple buzz phrases which raise a titter among aam audiences will not wash with khaas people who look for detail and some degree of sophistication.

This is not to suggest that Modi must unveil all kinds of detail on how to tackle the fiscal deficit or bring down inflation or how to handle Pakistan – detailing such things often leads to political disaster - but he has to offer more than just clichéd phrases if he is to pass muster.

The questioning classes may not matter in terms of their ability to bring in votes, but they do have a disproportionate ability to influence the agenda in urban areas. And this is where Modi is going the whole hog for votes - and he could come up short if he does not watch out. There are still eight months to go, and if cliched phrases are the best Team Modi can come up with, the BJP will falter at the gates.

I don’t know how or where Modi gets his ideas from, but one thing is clear: I suspect that the think-tank and image-builders who were useful during his Gujarat campaign may not be good enough to drive Brand Modi on the national stage. He needs more ideas, a bigger team.

There are two or three things Modi needs to do urgently.

One, he needs to build an advisory body of sector and area specialists – from economy to foreign policy to defence to urbanisation, et al -  to keep him primed for new thoughts.

Two, he must consciously develop a shadow cabinet which can them talk on specific issues as they get raised in the heat and dust of a national campaign. Having a shadow cabinet helps in two ways: it widens the circle around Modi and makes him look more like a leader; and two, when some ideas get short-shrift from the public, he can enter the picture as someone who can rise above his advisors.

Three, he must get some good speech writers – to generate new ideas and phrases. Modi is already an excellent speaker - the problem is the content is beginning to pall.

If Modi wants to run a presidential campaign upto 2014, he has to start building the intellectual support base and ideas team to take him there. He can’t do it all by himself – and his old Gujarat team of confidants. What got him here cannot get him there,

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