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At Varanasi roadshow, Narendra Modi put his time-tested 'shock and awe' tactics on full display

Long before the term 'shock and awe' found a place in the strategic parlance of the USA during the Gulf War to mean 'completely blow away the enemy', Prime Minister Narendra Modi had practically internalised this tactic into his politics way back in 1990. The spectacle of lakhs of people walking along his open car-cade on the streets of Varanasi on Thursday and before the filing of his nomination on Friday is nothing but a sequel to his tactical brilliance in electoral politics.

The show that overwhelmed people of Varanasi and eastern Uttar Pradesh was indeed very well calibrated to literally take the adversary by "shock and awe". And it can be better understood if one analyses the manner in which the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finessed the art of attuning the party's organisational mobilisation to electoral politics much like an exact science. Nobody knows it better than Modi that the phenomenon of a Mexican Wave in the crowds is more a product of engineering genius than spontaneity. Varanasi witnessed a brilliant show of it.

But those who think that the show was a new political innovation are unaware of the similar displays in the past that helped build a war-like organisational machinery. That the BJP in its early years had often punched much above its weight and got successful can be borne out by its history. Take for instance the General Election of 1989 and the Gujarat Assembly election of 1990 when Modi had become BJP's Gujarat unit general secretary and was in-charge of the party's organisation.

 At Varanasi roadshow, Narendra Modi put his time-tested shock and awe tactics on full display

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a roadshow on Thursday in Varanasi. Reuters

He had persuaded the central leadership to bargain hard for Lok Sabha seats in alliance talks but prepared majorly to occupy the political space ceded by the Congress. In fact, the elections were held against the background of deepening social fault lines created by Congress stalwart Madhavsinh Solanki with his famous KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) theory and a series of communal clashes that took place all over the state during the 1980s. Solanki's removal caused an internal rift and rendered the Congress organisational structure a rudderless ship.

Modi was determined to fill the vacuum with the BJP. Realising that the 1989 Lok Sabha election was focused around a personality – VP Singh, he diverted his attention to the state Assembly election in 1990. Modi was up against a shrewd regional satrap, Chimanbhai Patel of the Janata Dal, who was unwilling to cede much ground to the BJP in the seat-sharing alliance for the Assembly polls. Herein comes Modi's political genius of creating an atmosphere that catches his adversary off guard.

In an astute move, he asked ticket-seekers of all Assembly seats to drive down to Ahmedabad in vehicles decked up as raths. Obviously, riding a chariot carried a certain religious symbolism and was quite innovative at that time. At the same time, the BJP had been successfully running the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and championed the cause of good governance and honesty. The mobilisation of an innovative instrument of politics, raths, across the state surprised Chimanbhai, giving him the impression of far more influence of the BJP on the ground. He readily agreed to part with more seats. In the election, the BJP fared better than Chimanbhai's party. Since then nobody has been able to dislodge the BJP from its place of political primacy in the state.

The Varanasi show was a piece with such experiments carried out by Modi in the past. That he found an excellent executioner of his ideas in BJP president Amit Shah has added to the party's phenomenal organisational capabilities. It would be naïve to dismiss the Varanasi show as mere "event management" by the duo to divert people's attention. People waited for hours at the BHU gate, Assi, Sonarpura, Madanpura, Godowlia and other localities in hot and sultry weather to wave and cheer for the leader. Like a Mexican Wave, a large gathering responded to determined prodding. Everybody seemed to be coining their own slogans.

On his part, Modi seemed quite consistent in building a political narrative that practically upended the Nehruvian world view of statecraft and politics. He came across as a staunch ritualistic Hindu leader who can recite holy mantras along with Brahmins at the Ganga ghat and perform an aarti in complete consonance with the Vedic methods. On Friday morning, he visited Kaal Bhairav temple to pay obeisance to a deity who is mythologically believed to be the "kotwal (gate-keeper)" of this holy city. If one looks at the spectrum of religious emotions that Modi covered during his visit, he does not seem to be coy about making his religious conduct part of his politics. Through direct telecasts on various channels and several other platforms, he connected with crores of people across the country and conveyed a definite message.

The first evidence of adversaries being "shocked and awed" by Modi’s show was the Congress decision to bring back Ajai Rai as its candidate from Varanasi instead of Priyanka Gandhi. Earlier, when Priyanka had declared her intention to contest from this seat, she had generated hope in the Opposition. But the choice of Rai is seen as an abject capitulation. Similarly, the Samajwadi Party-BSP fielded a lightweight, Shalini Yadav, to take on the country's most powerful politician. Evidently, the Opposition's surrender to Modi is bound to provoke wider reverberations in the rest of the country.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 19:30:19 IST