LK Advani in his autobiography ‘My Country My Life’ famously recounted how the hype around the race between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and him for prime ministership was finally resolved. At the BJP’s ‘Maha Adhiveshan’ in Mumbai in November 1995, the large-hearted Advani had announced impromptu to a packed house of one lakh delegates that ‘Atal ji would be the prime ministerial candidate of BJP’ in the elections of 1996.
The die was cast. Advani’s avuncular gesture made him a second among equals all his life. Something at which even the generally amiable and reticent Manmohan Singh could not resist taking a dig at.
Narendra Modi as a keen observer of history would not like it to repeat itself.
So he stood at the ‘Sadbhavana’ convention filled with heavyweights of his party and many NDA leaders, religious leaders (that importantly had a sprinkle of Maulvis) and an eclectic gathering of hoi polloi (burqa clad women included) and declared himself the prime ministerial candidate for 2014 polls…..well almost.
Modi is seen through a dual prism - he has been described as a monster by the national media and an archangel by the Gujarati press. But the truth, by his own admission, lies somewhere in between. Whatever is the shade of grey that may be a true representative of his personality, the fact is that he is sharp and smells opportunity.
With Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj too busy trying to pull the rug from beneath each other’s feet, and Advani trying to stay relevant at 83, the vaunting Modi feels there is a vacuum that he can fill. As a poster boy of development and with a clean image that stands out starkly against the UPA’s Pandora’s Box of corruption cases, no time could have been better to make a bid.
As of now, BJP is clearly grappling for answers to the ‘who next’ question. Party president Nitin Gadkari has said the BJP may not even declare their prime ministerial candidate – such is the intensity of the tug of war, both within BJP and among allies. Sushma was missing from the convention inauguration and so was Nitish Kumar.
The moment Modi declared his intention to launch the ‘Sadbhavana’ fast, Janata Dal (United) went into an overdrive saying that Nitish Kumar’s model of growth was more spectacular considering that state that he turned around was the written-off Bihar. Not the already prosperous Gujarat.
So with both singing paeans of their own feats, what would be the clincher? Nitish and those opposed to Modi would bring up the 2002 Gujarat riots blot to push this former RSS pracharak out of the race.
Modi wants to strategically preempt his disqualification by reinventing himself.
For the first time in 10 years, Modi felt the need to salve hurt minorities by openly declaring that he “felt the pain of 2002 riots” and then went on to extol the achievements of his government in bringing peace and progress to “all communities”. By linking Gujarat’s spectacular 11% inclusive growth model with not just himself but the six crore populace of the state, he tried to end his isolation by projecting himself as a true representative of the collective asmita of Gujarat.
Politics does sometimes make a virtue of self aggrandizement. From the podium in Ahmedabad, he reached out to the larger India holding out the carrot of peace and prosperity. Saying if there was a man who could deliver these, it was him.
As a Muslim businessman from Gujarat told a television channel, Modi’s attempt to “reach out to all” was a clear break from the past, when Muslims were openly told to leave pandals at BJP gatherings in the state.
In 2011, Muslim leaders were called on stage to honour Modi and give their sanction of his candidature for the Centre. It was a message that Modi wanted to tell Muslims across India that they should not vote him out en masse. And to NDA allies that he was no longer a pariah.
While the US endorsement on economic growth and tweets appeal to the upwardly mobile, his carefully crafted photo ops with the minorities – and it is said he spends long hours finalizing his looks for shoots - are meant for the sceptics.
With the UPA having squandered goodwill of all work done so far with sky high fuel and food prices, the squabbling BJP is energized by the light it sees at the end of the tunnel in 2014.
And Modi has promptly thrown his hat in the ring. Through the ‘Sadbhavana’ initiative he has unveiled the mother of all makeovers. Than the tyrant who perpetuated genocide, he wants to project himself as a messiah of peace and progress.
How many would buy the altered imagery is hard to say. The more pertinent question that remains is: would cosmetic Modi’s ambition be propellant enough for him to metamorphose in real terms?