Narendra Modi revels in a challenge; now his biggest beckons
Modi needs to use the next 8 months to communicate with India, particularly with those who either continue to doubt his credentials or don’t know enough about them. There is little point in preaching only to the converted.
Narendra Modi had named himself the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate long before the party's Parliamentary Board rubber-stamped his nomination on 13 September. The imprimatur is the culmination of one of the most extraordinary political campaigns in recent times. It is the start of an audacious bid for India's top job from an entirely self-made politician.
The odds have never favoured Narendra Modi. He is the first OBC to be named as a candidate for India's top job by one of India’s national parties. Both the Congress and the BJP have traditionally been led by upper castes. He is also the first person from an under-privileged, working class, economic background — he ran a tea stall as a teenager — to lead a national party. He is the quintessential outsider who has broken through several ceilings.
But the odds only seemed to stack further against him as he rose in politics. The Gujarat riots of 2002 would have consigned a lesser politician to history. But Modi, then an inexperienced administrator, learnt the right lessons from the tragedy of Gujarat as he slowly reinvented himself as a politician who could deliver good governance, rather than as someone who stood for virulent Hindutva.
Those who continue to criticise him 12 years on for his role in the riots just don't want to recognise his evolution as a politician and administrator. He could, in all likelihood, have retained power in Gujarat by stoking communal tension periodically. Gujarat had a long history of communal violence long before he took office. Other politicians, from both the BJP and Congress, had exploited that. Instead, Modi has delivered a communal violence-free state while rethinking his own politics. The RSS and VHP, which acted with impunity in 2002, have been reduced to pale shadows of their virulent selves in Gujarat.
Modi's critics say that he is authoritarian and close-minded. That doesn't square with reality. Sure, he is decisive and pursues goals with a unique single-mindedness, but that isn't the same as being 'authoritarian' and 'close-minded.' In fact, Modi is India’s first modern, 21st century politician who has used the best ideas from elsewhere unhesitatingly.
Of India’s major national politicians, he was among the first to recognise the reach of social media. He has used technology brilliantly — his 3-D holograms were a resounding success in the Gujarat elections. You could argue that those are ideas that have helped him in the personal domain. But even in governance, he has taken to modern, even Western ideas.
Gujarat is perhaps the only state with a comprehensive climate change plan and a focus on renewable energy. GM crops have been a huge success story in the state, despite the obstruction caused by BJP-affiliated "Swadeshi" farmer groups.
Despite all this, the odds are still stacked against Modi ascending to India's most powerful office. But if anyone can beat them, he can. To do so, Modi needs to use the next 8 months to communicate with India, particularly with those who either continue to doubt his credentials or don’t know enough about them. There is little point in preaching only to the converted. His fate at the ballot box will depend on winning over a significant number of the undecideds and fence sitters.
For a start, he needs to acknowledge (at least to himself, if not in public) that he carries the baggage of Gujarat. He has to persuade minorities that he poses no threat to their safety. In fact, he needs to do more than that. He has to explain to them how he would actually improve their living standards (through growth-oriented governance), something the Congress has failed to do despite all the pro-minority rhetoric that it bandies about.
Modi also needs to spend time communicating his ideas for governance to the population beyond the urban middle classes. It is a myth that Modi's politics can only appeal to urban audiences. His policies for agriculture and infrastructure would resonate in rural areas, but he has to start talking to these audiences directly, rather than spending time talking exclusively to industry, or to well-off urbanites and or to educated college-goers.
Perhaps he was waiting for his coronation to hit the campaign trail in earnest. Now, he has no time to waste. An inept and discredited government has opened the door for Modi. But serious work in persuasion remains to be done. Modi's calling card in the much-defeated BJP is that he is a winner. He has to reaffirm that in 2014, or risk oblivion.
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