All debates on Narendra Modi lead right back to the S-word: secularism. With the actual riots receding into public memory, it works as a code word to raise the sceptre of Godhra, but more so, to underline his religious conservatism — and at a time when he is trying to reinvent himself.
More Vikas, less Hindutva is the new NaMo mantra. Modi wants to run as the future CEO PM, but Nitish Kumar won't let him. Neither, it seems, will the RSS, which didn't do him any favours by leaping to his defence. Or the Shiv Sena which has developed a new-found desire for a "mass" leader.
Much has been made of Modi's war with the liberals — whose animus is, in fact, an asset among certain rightwing constituencies. The greater hazard to his prime ministerial prospects, however, may lie in his uneasy relationship with fellow Hindutva mates, the RSS and Shiv Sena — each of whom poses a different kind of peril.
“The country should have a Prime Minister who propounds hindutva," RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat told reporters in the heat of battle, adding, “Nitish Kumar is scared to call himself a Hindu.”
Yet, in this war of words, both his critics and supporters sent out the same message, notes the latest Outlook cover story:
The planned nuancing of Project Modi began to go awry in the TV studios when words like fascism, communalism, riots, killers, Hindus and Muslims flew around and it was not Teesta Setalvad but members of the JD(U) who were invoking Hitler to make the point.
Then RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat jumped in and said that it is wrong to describe a pro-Hindu leader as not being secular. It was an indication both of an RSS endorsement of Modi and of the Sangh trying to run the BJP. Again not quite the way Modi would like his image to evolve. He has projected himself as the strongman who keeps the RSS in place and possibly even rescues the BJP from its clutches; here the sarsanghchalak was sending the signal that he was a “Hindu” leader who must be supported.
Equally unwelcome was the burst of "friendly fire" delivered by the other saffron stalwart. It's no secret that Balasaheb Thackeray is no fan of the RSS, but no one expected the Sena to openly throw its weight behind Nitish Kumar's anti-Modi offensive. Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut told Tehelka:
"Let us understand that the NDA is not just Narendra Modi or the BJP. The NDA is also about Akali Dal, Naveen Patnaik, JDU and us. Balasaheb is of the opinion that we should have a Prime Ministerial candidate who cuts across party lines, who is acceptable to everyone, who is a mass leader and who has stature like Atalji,” said Raut. According to him this was also a reason why his party chose to support Pranab Mukherjee’s Presidential candidature. “Stature matters and Nitish Kumar is right,” added Raut.
Modi is in the bizarre position of being attacked by both the right and left wings of the NDA coalition for being too "polarising."
Whence this unforeseen Sena salvo? One catalyst, the Tehelka article suggests, is the RSS decision to embrace Modi. A friend of my enemy etc.
As a senior Shiv Sena leader close to Bal Thackeray says: “We supported Modi in the name of Hindutva, but Balasaheb and the RSS have never seen eye-to-eye. Balasaheb has always opposed their imposing attitude and involvement in politics, Modi is following the same RSS line. If he is so committed to the Hindutva cause then why is he dividing the party which stands for Hindutva? We will not support Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the NDA.”
The other reason may be plain old jealousy. Let's not forget, Thackeray Sr., is the original Hindu Hridaya Samrat, and he can't be pleased with Modi for usurping the title. Besides, Modi's "imposing attitude" leaves only room for one man at the top of the Hindutva totem pole.
“Modi’s persona is such that he doesn’t give any bhav (importance) to other leaders, whereas Balasaheb is used to BJP leaders, from Vajpayeeji to the late Pramod Mahajan, treating him with deference," a Sena insider tells Outlook.
The problem with Modi — for his fellow rightwingers — is that he espouses a very personal and competing brand of Hindutva. He has transformed himself into the sole symbol of Hindu-based politics in Gujarat, sidelining all other contenders, including the RSS. And no one is keen on seeing him repeat the feat on the national stage.
As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay points out in his column, in embracing Modi at the BJP national meet, a weakened RSS leadership has grudgingly acceded to the inevitable: "The truce suggests that for the RSS Modi is an inevitable choice — at least in the future. He is the most credible face, capable of galvanising the cadre and make electoral dents outside traditional support bases. It suits Modi too — he needs a platform beyond Gujarat for his grandstanding."
But it doesn't mean that everyone is on board. The recent duelling RSS editorials on Modi reflect a deeper schism within the party, says a senior BJP parliamentary committee member: “There are two factions at work now. One is the pro-Narendra Modi/RSS faction, and the other is the anti-Modi/RSS faction that includes NDA partners and some senior BJP leaders."
Modi has become the flashpoint in a bitter internal war where he is attacked by NDA allies like Kumar as not being "secular"; embraced by his RSS supporters as a "Hindu" leader — even as he faces flak for being "divisive" from Sena luminaries of the Hindutva brigade.
None of this is good news for Modi's electoral masterplan to run as a "development" mahaguru. His trademark roar of "Vikaa-a-as" will do little to change the conversation, which remains stubbornly stuck on saffron. And with no help from those sickular liberals.