As Modi builds momentum, Congress betrays panic

A week, as Harold Wilson once observed, is a long time in politics. This passing observation-turned-cliche appears apt for the last one week. Within a few days of the Supreme Court order in the Gulbarg Society case, the process of Narendra Modi's reinvention has proceeded so fast as to leave the pundits flabbergasted.

As Modi begins his three-day fast for his Sadbhavana Mission that is intended to start the process of reconciliation with the minority community in Gujarat and build bridges with the rest, it is clear that it has – at the very least - become a talking point for the nation. If the process gathers momentum, it can change the political landscape very quickly. The presence of so many of the BJP's powerful leaders and allies in Modi's "fast" show that he is beginning to build political momentum already.

His latest letter to the “six crore people of Gujarat” is actually meant for the whole nation. After stating the obvious that he is human and can fail, he said the “pain of anybody in the state is my pain” and that the “poison of casteism and communal frenzy have never helped anybody.”

 As Modi builds momentum, Congress betrays panic


Step by step, Modi is moving in the direction of an inclusive agenda. The only thing that remains is making direct overtures to the Muslim community. And he has two years to do that. He has an added advantage which the rest of the Sangh Parivar  leadership doesn't: he is not from the privileged upper castes.

At the outset let me eat some crow. I had not thought it feasible for Modi to start reversing his fortunes so soon after the Supreme Court order in view of the formidable challenges he still faces - in courts, in terms of public perceptions, and in terms of acceptability as a coalition partner or head.

But the events of the past week are testimony that things can change dramatically by 2014. While his challenges remain huge, Modi can indeed be a viable prime ministerial candidate in two years' time with some luck and pluck.

Here’s why.

There’s panic in the Congress party. All the indications are that the party is beginning to be worried about a bigger challenge in 2014 for Rahul Gandhi than it thought possible. One has to read between the lines delivered by party spokespersons to understand this.

When Modi announced a fast, the Congress went into a tizzy and quickly got its Gujarat leader Shankersinh Vaghela to start a counter-fast to expose Modi. Having just been stung by an Anna Hazare fast, the Congress has learnt its lesson, and decided to counter Modi’s fast with one of its own.

Congressmen have also betrayed a sense of desperation in their reactions to the fast and the recent assessment of a US Congressional think-tank that Modi is an able administrator and potential challenger to Rahul Gandhi in 2014.

Law Minister Salman Khurshid betrayed this unease when he said he pitied Modi. “You can only pity whoever will have to fight Rahul Gandhi,” he claimed. Taken at face value, this statement can be seen as high confidence in Rahul Gandhi. But in the context of the recent universal thumbs down he got for his leadership during Sonia’s absence and his poorly delivered parliament speech on the Lokpal Bill, Khurshid’s statement means exactly the opposite. It was needed to assure the party faithful that he still believed in Rahul.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments are equally riveting. “The Congress does not need to fear the rise of Narendra Modi, but as Indians we need to fear the rise of Modi because he represents the sheer antithesis of everything that has gone into the making of the Indian nation,” Aiyar told  NDTV. Sure, Mr Aiyar. But since the Congress thinks it is India personified, what India needs to fear is the same as what Congress needs to fear.

Manish Tiwari’s comment on the US assessment is also revealing. He started haughtily, saying “I do not think it is necessary to dignify it with a response”.

He then went on to “dignify it” and attach undue significance to what the US thought about Modi with this comment: “The BJP has decided to extol a purported report by a US think-tank. They should also be cognisant that the same US still continues to deny him a visa.” So US opinion does not matter when it gives its assessment of Modi, but is very valid when it denies him a visa.

It is worth putting on record that the visa denial happened when the born-agains and the Christian right were in power in the US. Things may have changed now that the US has lost two wars and is retreating from the world with its tail between its legs.

The media’s feeding frenzy is another reason to believe that Modi’s reinvention will be magnified. Over the last 10 years when he ruled Gujarat, Modi studiously avoided the media, and restricted his interactions to small interviews during election season or after public meetings.

He probably did this for two reasons: rarity is an advantage in building mystique – as Sonia Gandhi does to good effect. Moreover, he probably calculated that the less he spoke, the less likely he was to be misquoted and tripped by media sound-bytes when he was facing so much legal and civil society scrutiny.

What this has led to is extreme latent hunger in the media for Modi-speak and soundbytes. The fast will provide one such opportunity for the media to seek TRPs from Modi interactions – like the Anna fast did – and it will probably do so.

The upside: it can only contribute to Modi’s superstar status. The closer you get to political leaders, the less you can demonise them. Modi now realises that he needs the media and the media needs him. If the media assessment of Modi changes, it will be a huge force-multiplier for Modi’s 2014 campaign – as we saw with the Anna Hazare movement.

The UPA’s spectacular economic and political failures are also playing into Modi’s hands. They have left a vacuum in the political space that Modi can easily fill. UPA-2 has been widely seen as a corrupt government, and its economic policies – on growth and inflation – are now seen to be miserably failing. The UPA’s social sector schemes – most of them poorly thought out despite being in the right direction – have contributed as much to the economy’s woes and they not have as much of a political constituency of the poor as one believed.

At the leadership level, Manmohan Singh has been stumbling from disaster to disaster, and Sonia Gandhi’s much-touted acumen has been completely missing in action. As for Rahul, he has been exposed for the lightweight he is.

Even when it comes to dealing with our neighbours, Pakistan and China, there is no coherent policy.

In contrast, Modi is the strong man with a reputation for balancing fast-paced growth with equity. Gujarat has been the only state with China-like growth figures, and its agriculture has also been robust. While Gujarat’s industrial prowess is well-known, his agricultural revolution is less talked about.

Gujarat has seen double-digit growth in agriculture between 2001-08 and an eight percent average over the decade. If India had achieved that, our overall growth would be in double-digits by now and the Food Security Bill would not be an albatross around the economy’s neck. Quite clearly, Modinomics works.

While 2002 will always be held against him, the fact is Gujarat has been communally peaceful since 2002. Modi has put down all communal elements with a tough hand. His record as the man who can keep the peace is what will help him now that he is trying to build bridges to other communities.

As for dealing with Pakistan and China, Modi does not face the handicap of being seen as weak-kneed. Not after Manmohan Singh’s bumbling leadership. Modi will be widely expected to follow a macho policy on our external threats – which goes down well with the bulk of the population.

The BJP will quickly rally behind him. On the face of it, it appears as if there will be a big leadership struggle within the BJP in the run-up to 2014. But this is primarily because there is no unanimity in the party now on whether Sushma Swaraj, or Arun Jaitley or even Nitin Gadkari or someone else should lead it.

But the truth is these options will be considered by the party only if Modi is clearly out of the fray. Given half a chance, the party would quickly unite behind Modi – as the support for his fast shows. In fact, the RSS is believed to have advised Advani to back the fast in order to rule him out of the race altogether.

The power equations within the party are quite clear. If it has to choose between staying out of power and making a good effort in 2014, the party will go for Modi.

The question-mark has always been about coalition partners. Will Modi be able to attract enough of them? But it is also worth considering two other points in this context. For the prospect of power dissolves opposition. As long as the BJP is not a contender for power, opposition to Modi is important. If it is in with a chance, Modi is less of a putoff.

History tells us the same thing. Chandrababu Naidu was willing to back the BJP despite his so-called secular stand. Jayalalithaa has always been willing to sup with Modi. Mayawati has often set up coalitions with the BJP – to the latter’s disadvantage, but she obviously has no qualms about alliances of convenience.

It is also not difficult to visualise Sharad Pawar and smaller parties being willing to accept Modi as leader. The TRS will back Modi if he guarantees them a Telangana. The AGP in Assam will back him, and the BJD in Orissa may not mind backing him if it’s inevitable. The Sena and the Akali Dal will not have problems with Modi.

Who then are we talking about as unwilling coalition partners? Just Nitish Kumar of Bihar? Or Lalu or Paswan? To keep his coalition, Nitish Kumar may keep his objections to himself in 2014.

The second reason why Modi may not be a deal-breaker is his own efforts to build bridges and reconfigure his appeal. The three-day fast may be the beginning of a long process of building a broader appeal. While it is highly unlikely that Modi will get the Muslim vote, the problem is if the Congress makes too much of an issue on this front, there will be a reverse consolidation of the Hindu vote in Modi’s favour – which is what has happened in Gujarat.

This is also the Congress’ assessment, and this is why it is not buying the Mani Shankar Aiyar line on “hard secularism.” In India, the constituency of hard secularism has two votes – Aiyar’s and Digvijaya Singh’s.

How will the Anna movement affect Modi? An interesting possibility is the convergence of the Anna upsurge and the trajectory of Modi’s bandwagon. Let’s be clear. The Anna group is a broadly middle-class and urban phenomenon that is against corruption, and also poor governance. Modi personifies exactly this constituency’s hidden wishes: a CEO who will deliver.

If Modi plays his cards well, the Anna constituency will root for him in the metros and cities of India. And India is 32 percent urban now.

Historically, no Asian, African or Latin American country has modernised and become a middle-income power without a strong central or authoritarian leadership. The Asian tigers were all authoritarian regimes when they were metamorphosing from cats to tigers. China is one even today. The late Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations, has observed that big change needs a big consolidation of power. Else, the vested interests will hijack change. Modi typifies this urge quite clearly.

Business will root for Modi. This is exactly India’s situation now. It has got stuck in political quagmire at a time when it needs bold decision-makers who can lead from the front. India’s business leaders – from Ratan Tata to the Ambanis – have been clear about their preference for Modi. So the money for the makeover will be there.

The US has seen the weakness of the UPA, and given its challenges in confronting a more assertive China, it wants a strong India. This is the context in which the leaks about Modi and Gujarat should be seen.

The only major challenges to Modi will come from the courts and activists who have made a career out of Modi-baiting. Which is why his enemies will focus there to stop Modi.

If the courts do not trip him, Modi is on his way to a dramatic transformation over the next few months and years. This is not to say he will indeed become PM, but he can at least give it a shot.

My last reference to Modi was that he was India’s Jinnah. Most people consider references to Jinnah in pejorative terms – because we have chosen to paint him as a communal villain without understanding his historical context. Sure, he fed the Muslim’s feelings of insecurity to create Pakistan. But once he achieved Pakistan, he was planning to make it secular. Advani said so. Jaswant Singh said so. Most historians agree with this assessment.

Jinnah’s misfortune was he didn’t live long enough to manage his transformation from sectarian leader to secular messiah. Modi has the time and the opportunity to do so. If the fast is seen as the start of a new Modi, the stars will begin to align his way.

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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2011 18:47:10 IST