I am no admirer of Mr Narendra Modi; no administration can be condoned for what happened in 2002. But however controversial Mr Modi might be, what cannot be wished away is the attention he gets wherever he goes.

His ardent supporters have already anointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi the next Prime Minister, two years before general elections are due. Their desperate hope is that the UPA Government will mess up the affairs of the country so badly that some of its key allies will pull the plug making midterm polls a fait accompli.

But there is no getting away from the immense polarising power of the Gujarat strongman. Last week yet again, those who came into close contact with him have been sucked into the eye of the storm.

The first one to get the marching orders for even daring to interview Mr Modi for his Urdu daily Nai Duniya is Samajwadi Party’s Shahid Siddiqui. In that famous interview with the tagline “Hang me if I am guilty”, for the first time in a decade, Mr Modi fielded sustained questioning on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Till now, he has either stormed out of television interviews or refused to grant interviews to print journalists who wanted to question him on the post Godhra carnage.

Calibrated media moves

The Gujarat Chief Minister is too seasoned a politician to grant a no-holds-barred interview without weighing in minute detail the consequences. For, Mr Modi’s media managers ensure that the occasional interviews he does give are based on questions given in advance and the request is entertained only if the journalist wants to discuss Gujarat’s model of development.

Honourable exceptions are, of course, magazines like the American weekly Time which recently dealt the Congress party the double-whammy of featuring Mr Modi on its cover in March 2012 with the headline “Modi means Business”, and following it up with another recent cover that called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “The Underachiever”. Of course the article on Mr Modi made all the right noises, in an apparent effort to “balance” the story, by calling him India’s “most polarising politician”, evoking the ghosts of the 2002 carnage, and related stuff.

But the message that cannot be missed is an international magazine like Time taking note of Mr Modi’s capacity to deliver, while hauling the Indian Prime Minister over the coals for his failure to do so.

So if Mr Siddiqui got away with an interview where he could pose questions on the 2002 riots, it was not because of his journalistic capability, but because he is a Muslim, and that too from a political outfit like the Samajwadi Party, which proudly wears the label of being pro-Muslim. Foolishly enough, the SP has shown him the door for interviewing Mr Modi.

Yoga guru’s endorsement

Close on the heels of this development came Baba Ramdev’s endorsement of Mr Modi for being non-corrupt. Sharing a platform with the Gujarat Chief Minister in Ahmedabad recently, an expansive Baba Ramdev said he saw no corruption in Gujarat. But what was much more difficult for the Congress to digest was one of its own Rajya Sabha MPs — Mr Vijay Darda — sharing the same dais and heaping praise on the BJP icon. “Modi’s commitment and dedication to work bear resemblance to a lion’s”, thundered Mr Darda, who too has some business interests, including a media house.

After initial hiccups, Team Anna, on yet another fast at the moment, has been careful to shun any communal colour. It has squarely criticised Baba Ramdev’s praise of Mr Modi. While one team member, Sanjay Singh, called Modi a “murderer of humanity”, Arvind Kejriwal was more guarded in his response when interviewed by TV channels. He refused to give Mr Modi any certificates for being non-corrupt and said that his government’s refusal to sanction permission for the prosecution of Fisheries Minister, Mr P. Solanki, for an alleged Rs 400-crore scam in the grant of fishing licences, pointed a finger at the presence of corruption in Gujarat.

Waves in Japan

But however controversial Mr Modi might remain in India, raising a huge question mark over the NDA allies accepting him as their prime ministerial candidate, if and when that happens, what cannot be wished away is the attention he gets wherever he goes. Take his recent visit to Japan, for instance. And this barely a couple of days after the brutal killing of a Maruti HR executive and assault on several others by workers at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar. Amidst speculation that high on his agenda in the Japan trip were discussions with the Suzuki bosses to coax them to shift the entire operations of Maruti Suzuki from Haryana to Gujarat, he was hailed in the Japanese media as a “strong leader” who not only encouraged investment in his State, but also ensured the physical safety of all those who worked there!

Wooing Japanese investment, Mr Modi made all the right speeches on how Gujarat’s entrepreneurial skills and peaceful and non-violent work culture, combined with Japan’s technology and discipline, could create an industrial miracle. During his five-day visit, he is said to have attended 65 business functions and met around 2,000 executives in five cities.

I am no admirer of Mr Modi; no administration can be condoned for what happened in 2002. And, in my head, the jury is still out on whether the much-touted development of Gujarat has been inclusive, taking under its wings not only the Muslim business community of Gujarat, which is already singing hosannas to their Chief Minister, but also the larger chunk of the less literate and, hence, scarcely employable poor Muslims.

But what cannot be denied, even after giving due weightage to his brilliant media management, is that you’d be hard-pressed to find one Congress or UPA chief minister who can display such energy, charisma and magnetism, not to mention intellectual rigour. Among Indian chief ministers, one who, perhaps, comes close to Mr Narendra Modi is Bihar’s Nitish Kumar.

That their style of functioning, the scale of arrogance or humility they display, and the secular or communal labels they wear, are so drastically different, is exactly what will make the battle for India’s next prime minister so interesting in 2014, or earlier.

Now I am ready to face blows for being pro-Modi, a new experience for me!

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(This article was published on July 30, 2012)
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