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Modi’s time starts now

RASHEEDA BHAGAT
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Humility is not exactly Modi’s cup of tea.
PTI Humility is not exactly Modi’s cup of tea.

Narendra Modi needs to convince voters that he is a different leader today. His biggest challenge will be to reassure people that Gujarat 2002 will never be allowed to recur.

In any contest or race, one would normally say “let the best one win”. But in the tumultuous and crooked world of politics, the best or the fittest person for the job — Panchayat president, MLA/MP — invariably doesn’t make it past the winning post.

The race for the prime minister’s post is no different. Sadly, and unfortunately, quite often, a person who seems the most suitable for the job at a given moment, such as Manmohan Singh in 2004, ends up appearing rather unfit for it later.

I believe Singh’s worst moment was reached, not when he meekly presided over a regime rocked by corruption scandals; nor when the markets crashed and the rupee went spiralling down to Rs 69 against the dollar — it was when he recently said, with a deadpan expression, that Rahul Gandhi was the Congress Party’s “ideal choice to be prime minister” and Singh would “be very happy to work in the Congress under his leadership”. This from a man who has been prime minister for 10 years and used to be, not so long ago, one of the most respected Indian leaders.

Modi’s moment

Anyway, this column is not about Singh, but the man of the moment — Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has been named the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. Ever a controversial politician, his baptism this time around too was by fire, with his mentor and one of the BJP’s primary architects L. K. Advani rather reluctantly endorsing the BJP parliamentary board’s decision .

The other contender for the post, Sushma Swaraj, has also not masked her displeasure and disagreement. But the fact remains that India Inc is largely behind Modi and nobody can understand better than the BJP, known as the party of traders, the true meaning of the adage ‘sabse bada rupaiyaa’!

No Indian political leader has evoked such blind faith and admiration on the one hand, and a matching degree of distrust and hatred, on the other, as Modi. He is also the best example to illustrate the cliché — love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. Call it hype, phenomenal marketing skills, or outright lies, in recent times, no politician has caught the imagination of the ordinary Indian — at least the upwardly mobile urban Indian — when it comes to the potential to set right our crippled economy, stem corruption and plug the leaks in the public exchequer.

Tweaking his lingo

Public speaking is mostly a cultivated art and Modi has fine-tuned his discourse lingo with amazing ingenuity. From addressing the majority community in Gujarat with the thundering “justice for all and appeasement to none”, his lingo has changed, even softened, to display more earnestness than bravado.

His Vibrant Gujarat initiatives have widened their scope from just the NRI investors and India Inc to the largest bank of Indian voters — farmers, 4,000 of whom were invited last week to Gandhinagar, were hosted, acknowledged, honoured and made to feel like VIPs.

And yet, within his own party, from leaders such as Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, there has been apprehension that his anointment as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate will scare away the Muslim voters in States such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which will shortly go to the polls. Forget elsewhere, even within the BJP, the ghost of 2002 is yet to be exorcised and that is going to be Modi’s single largest challenge.

The final call

Apart from Muslims, Modi needs to convince a chunk of the majority community voters that he is a different leader today and the horrendous events of Gujarat 2002 will never be allowed to recur under his watch, in Gujarat or in New Delhi. The BJP can taunt and accuse other parties of being “pseudo secular”, but not this silent constituency, which dreams of an India which is not vitiated by communal division and hatred. Of course, it wants development, jobs and a clean government; but it also wants to be ruled by a leader it can respect on all counts.

This can be done only if the prime ministerial aspirant comes clean, once and for all, on what happened in Gujarat; why the riots couldn’t be contained and the status report on rehabilitation.

It’s never too late to say sorry, but that requires humility, a quality Modi has rarely displayed. His advisors need to convince him that humility should not be confused with weakness, and an inclusive leader who can inspire confidence in the meek and marginalised, is taller than one who is decisive with the best organisational and management skills.

The BJP too will have to do better than attacking opponents with barbs such as “secular tourism” as it did on Monday, reacting to the visit of the Prime Minister and the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s to Muzaffarnagar. The real intent of all political parties is only too well known to the smart and intelligent people of India. But none more than the saffron party, and the man it hopes will ride it to power in 2014, should know that during any communal carnage, victims — those who lose their loved ones, their homes and belongings, are physically wounded and mentally tortured — will cling on to anything that offers solace in their moment of pain and horror.

Sanctimonious justifications — whether in Delhi of 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi infamously said of the anti-Sikh carnage that “when a giant tree falls, the earth around it shakes a little”; or Gujarat of 2002, when the massacre of Muslims was attributed to the “anger of 5 crore Gujaratis” over the Godhra carnage — have the lethal power of deeply wounding, infuriating and alienating the victims.

But while only time will tell who wins the 2014 electoral battle, a heart-warming image I saw, while driving to work today, offers reassurance about ordinary people.

On a heavily congested road, there was this amazing sight of two public transport buses in Chennai waiting patiently to allow a bent old woman with a stick to slowly cross the road, and two men from the sides rushing to hold her other hand and take her across.

Now this is the India and Indians we can be justifiably proud of.

(Responses to rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on September 16, 2013)
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