Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Firstpost Print
Few would recall that Narendra Modi’s transition into a political role took place at the most tumultuous times of Gujarat. Ahmedabad was the most turbulent place in the state. The atmosphere was charged with communal hatred. There was a saying among Hindus in Ahmedabad: “You can win Delhi but not Ahmedabad.”
The implicit meaning was that Gujarat’s principal city was invincible for Hindus. Since the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) elections were to be held in 1987, the atmosphere of polarisation became quite pronounced. Amarsinh Chaudhary, the new Congress chief minister, did not help matters when he banned the Lord Jagannath Yatra, an annual ritual for decades. This proved to be the ultimate provocation for the religiously devout in the walled city.
Given the history of communal violence and impression that the Amarsinh Chaudhary government was bent on pandering to Muslims, the issue had been snowballing into a confrontation between Hindus and the government. The Sangh Parivar had thrown in its lot with the Hindus who were irate at the state’s decree that banned the ritual.
In fact, the Jagannath Yatra in Ahmedabad is ritually taken out from the Lord Jagannath temple and goes around the walled city, including certain pockets of mixed population. In a peaceful time, the yatra would get a rousing reception even in Muslim-dominated areas.
But things had changed over the years following a series of communal riots and emergence of a powerful Muslim underworld reigned over by the gangster Abdul Latif. This syndicate was seen as enjoying the patronage of successive Congress regimes. Such perceptions, even if built on lies and half-truths, often trigger social resentment.
In 1986, Modi had still not made full transition from the RSS into the BJP when this controversy erupted. Though he was active in the functioning of the RSS-BJP and their affiliates, he was still working behind the scenes. Tensions were mounting in the walled city as the yatra day approached. Policemen were posted all around the temple to prevent any move to take out the procession.
However, at the social level, a message was circulated all over the city that Hindus were determined to defy the ban. Just a day before the yatra, some elephants that formed a part of the procession were quietly brought into the temple. Some trained volunteers also parked themselves inside in the night.
When morning came, the Jagannath temple resembled a police camp. Suddenly, an elephant led the charge and flattened police barriers, catching the personnel unawares. And, the rath yatra was on course. As elephants led the procession, police personnel rearranged themselves to provide security to the yatra. There were clashes as the procession passed through mixed neighbourhoods, and a large contingent of police took it upon themselves to complete the event, which has come to be known as “swayambhu yatra”, or “a yatra that took out itself”.
The yatra was planned to the last detail by Modi, though there has never been a credible acknowledgment. But, soon after, Chaudhary apparently made inquiries. He reportedly asked Keshubhai Patel, “Who is this Narendra Modi? I want to meet him.”
It did not take long for Gujarat to know about Modi when he took charge of the AMC election in 1987, his first assignment after moving to the BJP. The AMC poll victory is part of walled city folklore.
Addressing the corporators on February 20, 1987, Modi said only their good work would take them and the party forward. Soon there was a hepatitis outbreak in the area. The civic body undertook a cleanliness drive and mobilised health workers to educate people about the epidemic as swift arrangements were made for clean water supply.
In fact, the AMC became the first laboratory for Modi’s political experiments that were subsequently replicated in the state and at the national level. No doubt, Modi’s method of organisation expansion was quite unconventional.
As veteran BJP leader Harin Pathak says, the party knew only the traditional ways of holding rallies, making speeches, and mobilising people for an event occasionally. Not without reason, the BJP was then considered to be a party of Brahmin-Bania, who do not constitute a significant numerical strength in Gujarat. Modi’s rigorous strategy of co-opting marginalised social groups and neo-middle class in urban areas is quite unique. That formed the bedrock of the party’s growth at the national level.
From the very beginning, Modi was up against a formidable social coalition popularly referred to as KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim). The Congress had claimed invincibility on account of successful forging of this social coalition. Modi not only challenged it but also replaced it with a rainbow alliance that had a Hindutva hue. Initially, Patidars were the vanguard of this amalgam, but it later expanded to include tribals in large numbers. His strategic brilliance came to the fore soon after when he took over as CM in 2001.
Though Modi initially found himself in a tight spot after the Godhra carnage and ensuing riots, he recovered swiftly to take firm control of the narrative. His victory in the 2002 election was largely attributed to communal polarisation. But that was only one side of the story.
In his “gaurav yatra” across the state, he engendered hope among the people of restoring peace and Gujarati pride.
In the next five years, Modi ensured that the state remained peaceful and, at the same time, launched initiatives that promised to scale up development work in Gujarat to a new level. He also started correcting the malaise that had beset the administration. For instance, he ensured 24/7 power supply all over the state by separating feeders for domestic and agricultural consumption.
Since farmers were used to getting subsidised electricity, they rose up in revolt. Modi found a serious challenge to his authority from the Patidars who constitute nearly 20% of the electorate. He used his persuasive skills as an administrator to force farmers to fall in line but not without a political cost. In the 2007 state assembly polls, a strong section of the Patidars, egged on by a political lobby headed by Keshubhai Patel, opposed him with all its might.
The deft political manager that he is, Modi could foresee the problem and strategised in time to co-opt tribals and scheduled castes. He tapped into the angst of the burgeoning new-middle class, which aspires relentlessly for a better life and is quite industrious. For this section, the assurance of round-the-clock electricity and supply of clean water was nothing short of a boon. This accretion of new social groups to the BJP’s fold significantly added to the party’s support base and offset the drifting away of the Patidars.
An officer working with the chief minister’s office at the time told me that he had once tried to persuade Modi to shelve his scheme of electricity reforms. But an unfazed Modi told him: “Go ahead and implement it. Don’t bother about the elections.”
Modi won the polls, against all odds. Since then, he realised that tough decisions are not always bad politics. A day after the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2011, Modi gave me a lengthy interview while driving to participate in the annual kite festival. Just after leaving Gandhinagar, he pointed towards some houses that had been demolished to widen the street. “This is our model of development which evokes support,” he said.
The same approach was evident when Modi roped in Ratan Tata to set up his Nano car manufacturing unit in Gujarat by simply sending him the message, “Suswagatam (most welcome)”, after Mamata Banerjee chased away the project from West Bengal. Of course, the 2012 state assembly election was a cakewalk for him as the Congress appeared completely decimated.
There is a discernible pattern in Modi’s politics right through his management of the AMC polls to the national level in 2019. He aligned his development work to popular approbation. At the same time, he is the first Indian politician, perhaps after Mahatma Gandhi, who has honed the skill of persuading people to face hardships brought on by his tough decisions. In 2014, he rode a popular wave of optimism against the backdrop of a government headed by a prime minister who lacked political power and was beset with corruption scandals. Unlike previous experiments of non-Congress governments at the national level, he focused on consolidating and re-arranging his social support by taking up innovative initiatives.
It was not without reason that his first speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort was devoted to cleanliness and changing social habits in rural India. He launched a massive drive to build toilets across the country, caring the least about experts who rubbished the entire project as a gimmick. Once, when asked if one needed to create infrastructure first to build toilets, Modi is learnt to have replied: “Let us not get into the chicken-and-egg dilemma. First build the toilet, the rest of the infrastructure would follow.”
There is little doubt that there is deep social transformation in areas declared open-defecation free in rural India. Similarly, his insistence on opening a bank account for every Indian has profoundly impacted people’s attitudes towards personal economy. Also, the assured supply of electricity and gas in rural areas has significantly changed people’s lives and made them stakeholders in continuance of the government.
While launching initiatives to reform social behaviour, Modi’s sustained spending on infrastructure across the country is intended to give fillip to growth. He knows it better than most that the construction of highways, shopping malls and promise to build smart cities are not mere political assurances but also instruments to bring about momentous transformation in society.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the dominance of regional parties representing caste identities was overweening, Modi along with BJP chief Amit Shah managed to build a formidable organisational machinery and devised schemes to rope in smaller social classes which were politically not as empowered as dominant castes.
If one critically analyses Modi’s strategy to remould society and chart the course of his politics, it becomes quite evident that he has never changed his spots. In fact, he has turned all conventional wisdom on its head, while retaining the all-important habit of winning.
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