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The secret behind Modi’s poll hat-trick

Published Dec 23, 2012 11:44am

Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi speaks during an election campaign rally in Balasinor, about 90 km (56 miles) east of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. — Reuters (File Photo)

Narendra Damodardas Modi, aged 62, is a tech-savvy Indian politician. His website www.narendramodi.in is indicative of the fact that the leader with hawkish image across India and abroad cares for his Public Relations (PR) – both online as well as offline. His blog tells us that he is also concerned about his portrayal in the media. Many loathe him for his alleged role in 2002 Gujarat pogrom, which resulted in the killings of more than 1,000 Muslims, but his followers in the western Indian state of Gujarat love him to the hilt; they vote for him, and elect him again and again. Modi, who achieved a resounding victory in the latest Assembly Election 2012, will be sworn in as Gujarat Chief Minister (CM) for yet another term on December 26. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has won Gujarat elections for the fifth consecutive time.

What is behind Modi’s hat-trick of election wins (2002, 2007 and 2012): ‘communal’ googly or ‘development’ mantra? ‘Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him!’

“I have always stated that the Gujarat elections will be remembered as an election that will bring a paradigm shift in electioneering across India. By placing the development agenda above everything and by comprehensively rejecting the partisan agenda of casteism, vote-bank politics as well as divide and rule, the people of Gujarat have created a historic example in the eyes of the entire nation. Today Gujarat stands Ekmat (united) with the message that it is politics of development and good governance that triumphs!,” Modi wrote in a blog soon after his victory.

The Congress leader Sonia Gandhi once referred to this man as the “merchant of death” while many of his detractors have called him the “mass murderer”, but the Gujarati voters have chosen him as their leader for yet another five-year term. Overall it is the fourth time that Narendra Modi will be the CM (2001, 2002, 2007, 2012), but in terms of the electoral wins it is his hat-trick.

Modi addressed a massive public rally at Ahmedabad immediately after the results were out. The BJP leader thanked 60 million Gujaratis. He expressed gratitude to the people who voted for him and also those who didn’t. “My family is six crore Gujaratis,” he said. “Na Rukna Hai, Na Thakna Hai / Sirf Aapke Sapno Ko Poora Karna Hai (No stopping, no fatigue / Only have to make your dreams come true…,)” Modi further said.

Modi is now eying a bigger role at the federal level. Some of his like-minded hardliners such as the Shiv Sena’s executive president, Uddhav Thackeray from Mumbai, Maharashtra are already making claims that Modi is “knocking on the doors of Delhi”. In an editorial in the party mouthpiece ‘Saamna’, U Thackeray wrote: “Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and other top Congress leaders called Modi all kinds of names. Even the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier intelligence agency) was used to contain Modi. All NGOs painted Modi as a villain at the international level, but it was all in vain.”

But is Modi really a Prime Minister material?

Achyut Yagnik — a leading sociologist based in Ahmedabad— doesn’t think so. “Modi is not a statesman. He is an autocrat. And in a country like India divisive politics can’t work beyond a point,” Mr. Yagnik told Dawn.com.

The Hindu nationalist BJP is finding itself at the crossroads. Despite Modi’s immense popularity in Gujarat, the BJP is sounding cautious at this point in time to make a call on the party’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014 Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) elections. Senior BJP leader and eminent lawyer, Arun Jaitley told a private Indian news channel Times Now that his party will decide about the prime ministerial candidate at an appropriate time.

The idea of promoting Modi — widely alleged to be the main architect behind the infamous anti-Muslim riots in 2002 — as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is fraught with many dangers. Some political pundits believe this idea is a “recipe for disaster”, because the Congress could then easily launch a scathing attack on the “secular claims” of the right wing BJP.

Not that the Congress has an impressive record in preventing riots. The 1984 Sikh Genocide was a pogrom directed against the minority Sikh community as a well-orchestrated criminal response to the assassination of Indra Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. She was killed by her Sikh body guards. Moderate estimates put the figure of those killed (All Sikhs) in sponsored violence with clear support from the police and authorities, as established by the opinion expressed by India’s leading intelligence agency CBI, to at least 3,000. After Indra’s killing, her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as India’s Prime Minister. When asked about the anti-Sikh riots in reaction to his mother’s death, Rajiv said on record: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” The pogrom is also remembered as Operation Blue Star.

There are three hurdles, according to Yagnik, which Modi has to cross. “Senior leaders like Sushma Swaraj and others in the BJP pose serious challenge to Modi’s elevation at the federal level, the hardline Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) is not pleased with him, and many leaders in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will not like to see Modi as their prime ministerial candidate,” Yagnik argues.

The fact remains that Modi’s brand of politics has worked wonders in the Hindu majority state of Gujarat.

“We are marching ahead with the mantra of “Vikas, Vishvas and Vijay (‘Development, Trust and Triumph’). Our vision has been, is and will remain all-round growth to create a Bhavya and Divya Gujarat,” claims the maverick politician on his website.

Asaduddin Owaisi— 43-year old Muslim parliamentarian from South Indian city of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh — doesn’t concur with the view of Modi being credited with the soaring economic growth in Gujarat. “What development are we talking about? Malnutrition of children? Economic and social backwardness of the Muslims? Have the perpetrators of anti-Muslim riots been punished? Has the justice been delivered to the victims? Justice is the real development,” the Muslim politician told Dawn.com over the phone.

Then what makes Modi so successful, I asked Owaisi? “Well, Adolf Hitler too achieved success in Germany; the world witnessed what the man did in the end. In a democratic set-up people have the right to choose,” he argues.

Has Modi put the riots behind him? Have the voters forgotten 2002? Or, the wounds of the past have healed with time, and by the economic prosperity and developmental work which Modi claims credit for?

“The kind of development that Modi is projecting coincides with the aspiration of Gujarati youth for their future. About 60 per cent Gujaratis are below 40 years. Also, the influential urban middle-class is in favour of Modi. The national average of urban middle-class is 0nly 32 per cent but in Gujarat it is 43 per cent, which means advantage Modi. There is a town after every 25 kms in Gujarat, which means less urban-rural divide. Above all, the Muslim communities like Bohras and Memons openly extend their support to Modi,” says Yagnik.

Four separate exit polls commissioned by various private television networks ABP News, Times Now, News 24 and Headlines Today had predicted Modi’s victory and said the BJP was likely to win between 118 and 140  seats. He won 115.

Gujarat Poll Results:

Results in 2002: Out of total number of 182 constituencies in the Legislative Assembly of Gujarat, the BJP under the leadership of Modi won 127 seats. The Indian National Congress (INC) only managed 51 seats while the rest were shared by the Independent candidates and other lesser-known regional parties.

Results in 2007:

Under Modi, the BJP succeeded in maintaining its impressive record in Gujarat and again won 117 assembly seats. The Congress party did slightly better and won 59 seats, eight more than the previous elections.

Results in 2012:

Again Modi-led BJP in Gujarat won 115 assembly seats. The Congress had a better show and won 61 seats, two more than in 2007 and ten more than what it did win in 2002.

What makes brand Modi click in Gujarat?

Mr. Owaisi is critical of the Congress for its ‘lacklustre’ election campaign. “The Congress failed to highlight the social and economic backwardness of the Muslims in Gujarat. The party did not campaign well.”

On this speculation that the BJP-led NDA might be tempted to project Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, Owaisi had this to say: “The country has to decide then. At this juncture it will be premature for us to say or speculate anything about it.”

The Gujarat Chief Minister challenges the Congress with these words: “The more the dirt you throw, the more the Lotus will shine.” Lotus is the official party symbol of the BJP.

Modi’s detractors consider him massively controversial for his fiery speeches and deem his certain actions perilous to the ‘secular fabric’ of India, but his admirers in his home state credit him with the high economic growth under his regime since 2001-02. During the 2007 election campaign, Modi delivered a controversial speech in which he tried to justify the “fake encounter” of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. He was responding to the Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Sonia Gandhi’s speech calling him a “merchant of death”.

Modi’s meteoric rise means he has come to symbolize the BJP in Gujarat and perhaps becoming bigger than the party, which should be a worrying sign for the Hindu nationalist party. But there were few gestures of humility and grace made by Modi after his election win. He visited his fiercest rival Keshubhai Patel, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has been expressing his displeasure on public platforms and fought elections by forming a new Gujarat Parivartan Party. Another former CM Suresh Mehta too has expressed disagreement with Modi, either overtly or symbolically.

“In the name of ‘development’ and to project himself as ‘Vikas Purush’, Chief Minister Modi has handed vast tracts of coastal land and pasture land to big industrial houses. Similarly, water bodies in a number of districts in Saurashtra and Kutch, including the creeks that punctuate the coast, have been taken over by big industries, either legally or surreptitiously. It is common knowledge that pastoralists and fisherfolk have enjoyed traditional rights over such natural resources for their livelihood. They now feel deprived and distressed. Though no organised struggle has taken root, except the farmers' struggle against the Nirma cement plant in coastal Saurashtra, many villages of Kutch and Saurashtra have knocked the doors of the Gujarat High Court for justice. Their cases are pending before the court,” wrote Achyut Yagnik in India’s leading national daily The Hindu few months before the Gujarat elections.

There is no doubt that Modi has claimed a hat-trick of election victories in Gujarat, but is yet to remove the tag of being a hardliner Hindu nationalist, an authoritarian and autocratic ruler, which in the long run should prove enough to limit his influence beyond Gujarat and stall his elevation and prime ministerial candidacy, and above all, spoil his dream of ruling India as PM.

The writer is a professional journalist with international experience. He has worked as editor at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has also contributed features to the BBC web. Feedback at gowhargeelani@gmail.com