'From his persistent fuelling of pan-Hindu nationalism to pandering to narrow Gujarati chauvinism, Rambo rides again, using fair means and foul -- and often foul -- to gain the battleground,' says Sunil Sethi.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
If the Gujarat election were a Hollywood movie the fight would go down as a contest between Rambo and 'Mr Zabardast'.
It is clear that Narendra Modi, like the Vietnam vet Sylvester Stallone, skilled in aspects of survival, weaponry, hand-to-hand combat and guerrilla warfare, has vanquished Rahul Gandhi, the Congress's new head who promised a 'zabardast' (overwhelming) result.
From his persistent fuelling of pan-Hindu nationalism to pandering to narrow Gujarati chauvinism, Rambo rides again, using fair means and foul -- and often foul -- to gain the battleground.
His last act of swashbuckling braggadocio also involved a seaplane ride to a temple visit.
Analysts who optimistically believed Gujarat was a neck-and-neck race will soon be chewing the cud on how the caste arithmetic panned out -- did the influential Patidar vote neutralise the OBCs? -- or how Mr Zabardast's sudden reincarnation as a shiv bhakt failed against the rallying troops of Modi bhakts, may lose sight of one over-riding fact.
In his self-glorifying portrayal as the poor Gujarati tea-seller who rose to the office of prime minister, Narendra Modi's success hinged on galvanising Gujarati pride.
A visit to Vadodara not long ago, a place from where Mr Modi was elected in 2014 with a margin of 570,128 votes -- the second-highest ever recorded in a Lok Sabha election -- confirmed this.
It is a remarkably confident, prosperous city, with smart coffee shops next to thronging Gujarati shops purveying a choice of traditional farsaan (snacks).
In the hotel restaurant recommended for its impeccably-served thaalis, at Rs 285 to eat as much you liked, the room rang with foreign accents, of overseas professionals doing business and non-resident Indians back for a home visit.
Money matters here. Despite simmering antagonisms against 22 years of BJP rule, for many Gujaratis the BJP's ruling trinity in New Delhi -- the prime minister, his close confidant and 'booth-management' strategist Amit Shah, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who represents Gujarat in the Rajya Sabha -- represents a windfall of gifts, in cash and kind.
It is not for nothing that Mr Modi has been on a spending spree, with the up-to-speed construction of a Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and the mammoth 600-foot, Rs 2,989 crore (Rs 29.89 billion) statue of Sardar Patel on a river island near Vadodara.
Several of his Rambo-like initiatives to capture eye-balls at home and abroad, demonetisation for example, have failed miserably, or been laid to waste, such as the Swacch Bharat campaign.
His foreign policy has shown up to be a jerky, often tawdry, exercise in self-aggrandisement. Discounting his questionable habit of enveloping world leaders in deep embrace, he has an odd way of observing birthdays.
At his own in September 2014 he parked Chinese President Xi Jinping, alongside himself, on a jhoola on Ahmedabad's riverfront park for photo-ops, with officials describing the encounter 'as more about bonding than business'.
More indelibly imprinted on public memory is his impromptu Christmas Day visit in 2015 to Mian Nawaz Sharif's estate to wish him many happy returns. The compliment was not returned, but followed by a series of terrorist attacks on the Pathankot air base and elsewhere.
For Mr Modi then to depict a blameless dinner at Mani Shankar Aiyar's home in honour of Pakistan's former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri -- in the presence of former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, former vice-president Hamid Ansari, impartial senior civil servants and others -- as a Congress-Pakistan-Muslim conspiracy to meddle in the Gujarat election, is stooping low to conquer.
The semantics of the word 'low' are operative; in Mr Aiyar's apology that is what he meant by 'neech' rather than the casteist slur of 'low-born' that Mr Modi interpreted full throttle in his campaign.
Mr Aiyar has paid heavily for his mistake; Mr Modi is the butt of universal censure for tarring the nationalism of anyone other than that of his camp followers.
The journalist Rahul Singh, Khushwant Singh's son, who attended the dinner, has given a detailed account, asking if they were indulging in 'anti-national, treasonable activity' at just another mundane Indo-Pak discussion.
Karan Thapar slams the prime minister's allegations as 'malicious, delusional... (and) utter nonsense'.
Pakistani commentators have understandably had a field day taking apart Rambo's rants, in particular over an ex-Intelligence officer, Sardar Arshad Rafiq, whom Mr Modi described as a former 'DG in the Pakistan army' attempting to foist Ahmed Patel as chief minister of Gujarat. (In fact no 'DG' designation exists in the Pakistani army and Mr Rafiq calls himself 'a nobody'.)
Mr Modi's Pakistan bogey, sums up noted Dawn columnist F S Aijazuddin, 'is the equivalent of President Donald J Trump's numerous demons -- North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Cuba, Mexico, and the Democrat party -- all rolled into one. Trump may be afflicted by many headaches; Modi has only one -- a migraine called Pakistan'.
But as Rambo rides it out in Gujarat, the pain was worth it.
The struggle ahead is all uphill for 'Mr Zabardast'.