The 'har har Modi' problem: After Hooda, Jharkand CM booed at PM rally

It's officially a boycott. Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda led the way when he declared that he would no longer share a dais with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now the other Congress CMs are jumping on the bandwagon.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has now decided not to attend a Nagpur function today in which Modi will inaugurate the city's metro rail project, telling The Indian Express, " “No invitation letter was received from Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, no communication received on whether the project has received approval of the Union Cabinet and the possibility of ruckus by BJP workers as it happened to Haryana CM Hooda the other day."

The last being the most important for when pressed by the Express on whether he would attend if invited, Chavan responded, "“I can’t decide that now. And also what about the possibility of ruckus like the way it happened in Haryana the other day? It all seems to be going in a planned manner.” Hooda was heckled by a pro-Modi crowd on his own home turf in Kaithali at a National Highways Authority of India event.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters.

If the Economic Times' sources are to be believed, this boycott is now official Congress policy. The leadership has asked both its own leaders and allies like Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren to follow a "protocol lakshman rekha" that limits all joint appearances with the Prime Minister, especially in states headed for elections later this year. And with good reason, or so the party claims.

According to ET, Congress party sources allege a vast BJP conspiracy to use such public events -- which ought to be politically neutral -- to play dirty politics.

"We are convinced that BJP workers' attempt to humiliate Hoodaji was a cheap and orchestrated show stage-managed by Modi. There is a pattern to this. Modi had tried to bully J&K CM Omar Abdullah when they jointly attended a function recently. He tried the same thing with Prithviraj Chavan at another function. This shows Modi is trying to show chief ministers from Congress and other non-NDA parties, especially in the election-bound states, in poor light," said an AICC general-secretary who is in charge of a couple of Congress-rules states.

Now there is no hard evidence of any such 'engineering', and crowds at any Modi rally, official government business or otherwise, tend to be raucous. And India Today notes that in Kaithali, the PM "waved to the crowds urging them to maintain composure. However, the crowds were in no mood to pay heed and continued to interrupt the chief minister during his speech, which was completely inaudible."

That said, it is also telling that the BJP leadership, including Modi, have done little to soothe ruffled feathers, and instead accused the Congress CMs of disrespecting the Prime Minister. But as it turns out, the warning issued by the Congress leadership to Soren -- to be "cautious" about sharing a stage with Modi -- turned out to be prescient. Soren today was also booed during a joint appearance with the PM in Ranchi despite the fact that he had specifically asked the PMO to ensure that he would not be put in an "embarassing" situation a la Hooda. And yet, he was heckled any way -- which is hardly reassuring for any leader who plans to share the stage with his PM.

At first blush, this may seem like a minor spat driven by political ego -- as Hooda's tone makes clear -- but it underlines a certain Jekyll and Hyde quality that Modi's leadership has acquired. Where Modi the PM spoke in a lofty, unifying tone from the Red Fort on Independence Day, acknowledging the legacy of Congress prime ministers before him, Modi the BJP leader is ready to use petty humiliation to score points ahead of an assembly election. (And as MK Venu has pointed out on Firstpost, the pattern is the same with the far more incendiary issue of communalism). Modi can't have it both ways, allowing electoral calculation trump the needs of statesmanship when convenient. At some point, the janus-faced act will start to wear thin.

Even if we are to believe that such behaviour of such crowds is spontaneous and not (at the least) tacitly encouraged, Modi must do a better job of reigning in the personality cult that has become the trademark of his party supporters. It may be easy to sneer away the complaints of Congress state leaders, many of whom are poised on the edge of defeat, but no prime minister should encourage or even tolerate the politicisation of official government events.

It's just bad precedent that will, in the end, undermine Modi's own credibility when he talks of working with the opposition -- or when he visits an opposition-ruled state and can't find a single CM who will share a stage with him. And let's face it, this kind of crowd worship makes even BJP CMs like Shivraj Singh Chouhan uncomfortable when they find themselves overshadowed by Modi on their own home turf.

Besides, given the electoral strength of his party and his own personal popularity, does Modi or his party really need such petty victories?  Perhaps not, and this is why Modi chastised the crowds in Ranchi, saying "the Chief Minister should be respected." After all, a likely-to-be-defeated Hooda or Chavan can afford to seem petulant, but a prime minister who wants to lead India for the next 15 years can not.