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The Modi phenomenon: Fading or being rekindled?
Pravin Sheth
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Coverage: Gujarat Votes, 2007

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December 13, 2007

No chief minister has been as dominant or as controversial in the national media and public psyche as Gujarat's Narendra Modi [Images].

None has created as much expectations or faced as many challenges as Modi.

Paradox is his trademark. He is a collage of multiple images -- inept pragmatist, Hindu fanatic, chief monster, can-do leader, dictator, development man, prime minister material, a menace to democracy, polarising and communal, CEO of Gujarat Inc.

Even for such a complex phenomenon that dominates Gujarat and engages the political discourse in India, one thing is clear -- Modi has evolved and is moving on an ascending escalator in his political life.

Modi has steadily risen from a modest family background with his disciplined nature and focused aim. His mother, Hiraba emphasises his firmness, self-reliant and independent nature.

Hiraba knew her son when she said of him: "If he faces obstacles, he would not give up or change his mind." And the son stated to this author," My mother does not wear a chappal that cost more than five rupees. The furniture in my house in my vatan (Vadnagar) is made mainly of plastic."

It is another matter that now he takes great care to turn out immaculately. His office in Gandhinagar, filled with hi-tech and expensive gadgets may sound an antonym to his protestations of simplicity.

Ideologically groomed in the Sangh ideology since he was a teenager, Modi was fond of talking about Swami Vivekanand and the 'integral humanism' of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. His unusual organisational skills helped him rise fast in the Sangh Parivar, and the graduate to top positions in Bharatiya Janata Party. He was one of the architects of the party's victories in the 1995 and 1998 assembly polls. He was helped by his deep understanding of Gujarat's political sociology. But his abrasive style of dealing with his seniors in the party got him into trouble.

He was eased out of Gujarat by then chief minister Keshubhai Patel with BJP high command appointing him as the party general secretary. But he deftly used his political exile in New Delhi to demonstrate his competence by consolidating BJP position in the north Indian states.

Modi replaced Patel in the wake of the decline of BJP fortunes in local elections in Gujarat.

When he won the 2002 elections and finally became chief minister, his swearing in ceremony was distinguished by the presence of the prime minister A B Vajpayee and even chief ministers of non-BJP states. The event was telecast on a website which NRIs saw worldwide. It was more than symbolic, it indicated Modi's penchant for showmanship, and imaginative harnessing of technology for image building.

His rule since then has been constantly eventful and controversial. His authoritarian style that irked his party colleagues causing a nagging rebel factor that has embarrassed him in the current elections. His perceived arrogance and hubris-charged personality has alienated some sections of the Sangh Parivar.

Meanwhile, Modi has carved out his niche in hearts of Gujaratis, including its resourceful Diaspora, by his dynamism, resourcefulness as displayed in some breathtaking development projects and imaginative schemes. His personally clean image and initiatives to inculcate a new work culture in the state administration have helped. His imaginative adoption of the 'yellow' model of economic growth (taken from Eastern Tiger countries and revised to suit the imperatives of local conditions and India's democratic system), the imaginative introduction of SEZs and port-based development along with Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor are bound to make Gujarat a geo-economic power and create millions of jobs.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to monitor his nimble-footed navigation between Hindutva and development as mediated by Gujarati pride and identity. Can we discern in him a subtle process of transformation from Hindutva-based leader to a development-oriented can-doer?

But all this requires a long gestation period for delivery of the benefits to citizens. Are people ready to wait for such a promised delivery? Does Modi have a critical mass, who feel they have received benefits of his development like water, electricity etc? Or will voters be influenced by the talk of his avid critics.

How far Modi has succeeded in neutralising the electoral politics of caste remains to be seen. (The Leuva Patels plus Kolis and a mix of farmers are against Modi's policies). It also remains to be seen if his strategic shifts around issues of development and Hindutva strike a resonant chord among the mainstream electorate.

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