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Modi's three-and-a-half allies

December 16, 2002

Let us begin with Bansur, Sagwara and Bali, shall we, before moving to neighbouring Gujarat. There were three by-elections being held in Rajasthan. Going into the polls only one of the three was held by the Bharatiya Janata Party; Today, it holds all three. Remember this when you hear the 'experts' pontificate on how the Bharatiya Janata Party swept Gujarat only because of the Narendra Modi factor.

The Bharatiya Janata Party would probably have won a majority in Gujarat in any event. But, truth be told, Narendra Modi would not have buried the Congress (I) under a landslide were it not for three-and-a-half unlikely allies. Who were they? Step forward the Congress (I), the English media, the militants, and, last but not least that 'half' ally, the Election Commission. Without their unwitting aid, Narendra Modi might never have achieved such a victory, easily besting all the opinion polls. So, how did this quartet manage to raise Modi to such heights?

Let us begin with the Congress (I). The party was right in trying to shift the focus from the question of security to that of economic development. But it made a couple of tactical errors that have cost it dear. First, it mistakenly assumed that people have short memories. Second, it made Shankersinh Vaghela its flagbearer in the Gujarat campaign.

Who exactly is Shankersinh Vaghela? Let me leave it to the Congress (I) itself to describe the man who left the Bharatiya Janata Party to form a ministry with Congress support. In October 1997, the party withdrew support from the Vaghela administration. Explaining why, in a letter to the governor, the Congress leaders described the Vaghela administration as 'corrupt, inefficient, weak, autocratic and whimsical.' It went on to list eight separate counts of corruption, three counts of maladministration, and finished by accusing Vaghela of political failure as well. Five years is not enough time to forget this catalogue, is it?

This was not the only error made by the Congress (I)'s campaign managers. They invited several leaders to campaign for them, both from within the party and from outside. To buttress the claim of 'Development versus Destruction' it would have made sense to put an S M Krishna or a Digvijay Singh on every platform. But the first was underutilised and the latter refused on the ground that he was unpopular because of squabbles between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over the Narmada. So, who drew the largest crowds for the Congress (I)?

Laloo Prasad Yadav! I am sure the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal has several virtues -- even if I have never noticed them -- but is he really a role model for 'development'? His native Bihar is repeatedly held up as the most backward state in India, the worst by any standard of human development. He drew crowds thanks to the buffoonery that is the hallmark of a Laloo Prasad Yadav performance, but his presence did nothing to press home the message of 'development.'

In the past ten months the Congress (I) tried hard to project itself as the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. But the voters perceived it only as the party of Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel...

Let us now move on to Narendra Modi's second ally -- the media. Ever since the carnage at Godhra, the English print media and their television colleagues have been spewing venom against the chief minister of Gujarat. (The Indian language media were better on the whole.) Some of them used loaded language, speaking of 'State-sponsored violence,' 'pogroms,' and the like. There was never a shred of evidence to back up the rumours, but each fresh accusation rested on the back of the previous, unfounded, allegation.

In the process the English media destroyed its own reputation for fairness. I am sorry to record that the idiocy did not end even with the declaration of the results. Just look at some of the feeble excuses being offered by the so-called 'experts'!

'The Bharatiya Janata Party could win seats only in central Gujarat where the riots took place!' 'The Bharatiya Janata Party lost when the Congress (I) succeeded in making development the issue.' 'The Bharatiya Janata Party could not win in places struck by the earthquake.' And so on. beginning early in the morning as the first trends started to trickle out. Let me sum up all the expert opinions in two sentences: 'When there is an earthquake, the BJP loses. When there are riots, the Congress (I) loses!'

It is as if some people never learn. The results demonstrate that the BJP maintained its hold in quake-struck Kutch. In fact, it bettered its previous performance, winning a two-thirds majority. What did the media expect, 100%? But only the Saddam Husseins of the world achieve that. (By the way, I'm surprised nobody compared Modi to the Iraqi, they certainly called him everything else!)

Let me leave my colleagues in the English-speaking media with one final thought: You are free to say that you like. But do you really want to demonstrate how utterly ineffective you are in affecting public opinion, and how graceless when proved wrong?

Narendra Modi's third set of allies came in the form of militancy. Dislike of Pakistan is probably the one thing that will unite all Indians. It was a gift from heaven when General Musharraf raised the issue of the Gujarat riots at the United Nations. And it was another when Shankersinh Vaghela brought it up on a visit to the United States, supporting the call for an international probe. The idea of 'outsiders' trying to interfere in a domestic election raised hackles all across Gujarat.

But it was probably the attack on Akshardham that was the last straw. Gujarat, the state with the longest  coastline in India, is worried about its safety. That vicious terrorist thrust underlined Modi's argument that national security was an issue even in an assembly election. (The bonus came in the form of angering the powerful Patels; annoyed as they may have been at Keshubhai Patel's removal, they were far more furious at the attack on their temple.)

Finally, there is the 'half ally' -- the Election Commission. Like it or not, that body, specifically the Chief Election Commissioner, was seen as biased. It recommended President's Rule -- something that is beyond its authority. It delayed polls on the grounds that it needed to revise the electoral rolls -- and then presided over the most corrupt set of rolls in the history of Gujarat. And all this helped Narendra Modi.

The sitting chief minister had a tough job. He had to contend with the anti-incumbency factor. His predecessor Keshubhai Patel had presided over a government notorious for cronyism. He had to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. And yet he managed to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party to an enhanced majority in the Vidhan Sabha.

I think Narendra Modi would have won anyway. But he has to thank his witless allies for the massive majority!


T V R Shenoy


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