BJP leader Arun Jaitley isn't someone given to shooting off his mouth: even his recent public spat with Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju, for all the sharp-edged nature of its tone, rested on sound principles of public accountability of officers who hold quasi-judicial positions in society.
Which is why Jaitley's public comments - in an interview to Headlines Today on Friday - virtually pitching for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be named as the BJP's candidate for the 2014 elections are hard to dismiss. Particularly in the context of BJP president Rajnath Siingh's recent request to senior party leaders not to give public articulation to their views on Modi's candidacy as Prime Minister, Jaitley's remarks - which violate that order - acquire additional political significance.
Jaitley asserted in his interview that there was "a groundswell" of support for Modi as the party's candidate for the prime ministership in the 2014 elections.
“There is," he noted, "a growing interest in Mr. Modi as the PM candidate. This is due to a groundswell building up among the people. And it’s just not because of a media buzz. When there was a media blitzkrieg against him, he had the strength to survive by addressing audiences over the heads of the media. There are few Indian politicians who have the courage to do that. I think Mr. Modi has made a huge mark on the Indian polity.”
The timing of Jaitley's robust defence of Modi too has a certain context. It comes on the day the National Executive of the BJP met in New Delhi, and a day ahead of the National Council meeting on Saturday to draw up the party's strategy for the elections in 2014. Clearly, Jaitley was looking to influence the agenda of the meeting in order to get it to consider - and perhaps embrace - Modi's candidature.
Other straws in the wind indicate that the BJP has, slowly but surely, made up its mind on the issue, and is willing to place its bets on Modi. Also at the National Executive meeting, BJP president Rajnath Singh spoke glowingly of Modi's record of having provided good govenance over the past year. He even pointed to the recent decision of European Union ambassadors in India to end their "diplomatic boycott" of Modi for his government's alleged complicity in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Despite several campaigns against Modj, the European Union was building bridges with him, he said.
The dominoes of international political opinion directed against Modi have, of course, been falling in recent times. Hot on the heels of the European Union's end of its boycott of Modi comes news that he is scheduled to deliver on 23 March the keynote address at the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) at The Penn Museum in Philadelphia. But since the US has, under pressure from human rights campaigners, has indicated even recently that it would not be inclined to give Modi a visa to travel to the US, he will deliver his speech via a videoconference facility.
Already, campaigners, including students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, are pushing for the university to withdraw its invitation to Modi,
Back in India too, Modi faces another backlash of sorts against his likely participation as the chief guest, later today, of a printers' conference in New Delhi. Several representatives of the publishing industry, who abide by liberal values and claimed to be appalled at the decision to invite a politician - particularly one who faces accusations of culpability in the Gujarat riots - as the chief guest.
For instance, Indu Chandrasekhar of Tulika Books said: "We are both shocked and dismayed to see that Romancing Print has seen fit to invite Narendra Modi as its Chief Guest to this year's edition...We fail to understand why, in the first place, a political figure who neither has anything to do with the print industry nor holds any official position in this regard should have been invited as Chief Guest when there is no dearth of professionals from the publishing and print industry who could lend both grace and dignity to an event such as this."
She claimed that two of the media partners for the event Mumbai-based Printweek India and Delhi-based Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP) -- have withdrawn their support to the event. Ramu Ramnathan, Group Editor of Print Week India, wrote to the event organisers officially withdrawing himself as a media partner. "We do not agree with the content of your seminar and invitation of Narendra Modi as a chief guest," he said. "As a magazine and as a publishing house in India with more than 12 years'' standing, we stand by the principles of good taste, decency, progressive values, democratic principles and above all, the Constitution of India. As editor of PrintWeek India, I don't think Narendra Modi stands by these values; and hence the withdrawal of support," Ramnathan said.
Similarly, Naresh Khanna, Editor, Indian Printer and Publisher Packaging South Asia (IPP) claimed that "it is a huge mistake... to have invited Modi to address this event. In any case we have never been consulted as to the content or program of the previous Romancing Print events and the organisers have assumed that we would simply rubber stamp our agreement to be media partners. "It seems that in a bid to perhaps draw crowds rather than hold a conference with real content you have been misled by Narendra Modi's propaganda machine of his great successes in Gujarat...In addition, you are perhaps unwittingly becoming a part of Modi's propaganda which includes his efforts to avoid all legal responsibility for crimes perpetrated by him and his government," Khanna said.
All these are symptomatic of the likely political backlash that Modi will face at home if he is formally projected as the BJP's official candidate for prime ministership.
Yet, it is significant that the party's leaders like Jaitley and Yashwa nt Sinha and Ram Jethmalani have come out forcefully in defence of Modi's candidature. Just as the dominoes of international opinion directed against Modi are falling, so too is opposition within the BJP to that project. Interesting times lie ahead.