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Is Narendra Modi reinventing himself?

Updated: Mar 26, 2013, 16:09 PM IST

There is no doubt that Chief Minister Narendra Modi is the flavour of the season. At the moment, he is undoubtedly the most talked about politician in India and BJP’s, man of the moment. A hard-boiled Hindutva leader from the RSS stable, Modi is a mass leader, who takes pleasure in enthralling the national and international audience with his fiery speeches.

He has delivered Gujarat for the third time in a row to his party and won accolades for the state’s model of development. And if a latest survey is to be believed, Modi is the choice of majority Indians as the next prime minister, far surpassing Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

The direction of the wind can be also gauged by the eagerness of the international community to be in Modi’s good books.

All this makes Modi one of the most serious NDA’s PM candidates in 2014 General Elections. However, Modi’s ambition to take centrestage in the national politics is bound to face several obstacles. His march to Delhi is not going to be a cakewalk. His aspiration to don the Prime Minister’s hat could be as difficult as reaching North Pole or climbing the Mount Everest.

Modi’s hardline image often acts as a major stumbling block in his quest to conquer the Delhi. The tragedy with the BJP is that it too can’t ignore the writing on the wall despite not being fully convinced about projecting Modi as its choice for the top post.

The saffron brigade is fully aware that projecting Modi as its prime ministerial candidate will not only hurt the NDA but also unsettle the poll equations in crucial states like UP, Bihar etc. And probably that’s the reason why BJP has so far refrained from officially naming Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 polls.

In order to win the bigger game of seizing power at the Centre by ousting the Congress, the BJP needs to win at least 180 seats in the Lok Sabha and win more allies to be able to reach the magic figure of 272.

Given the strong opposition to Modi’s name from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is also believed to be in the race to the PM’s chair, the task of keeping allies onboard will surely be a tough task for the BJP.

Hence the party is playing safe and has announced that a decision on the issue will be taken only after the General Elections. Well aware of the situation, Modi, a seasoned politician, is playing the subtle game of building bridges with his adversaries, making inroads to formerly unexplored quarters and toning down his image to widen his reach.

Modi realises that to be able to become a consensus NDA candidate, he will have to get the confidence of majority Hindu voters and bow down to the diktats of various regional satraps, who have become an essential part of Indian parliamentary democracy.

Something that Atal Biahri Vajpayee, the BJP’s tallest and most successful leader, was able to do with finesse. So it’s not surprising why Modi hailed the former Prime Minister Vajpayee as his `` role model`` while addressing the Indian diaspora in America through video conferencing.

Modi’s sudden appreciation of Vajpayee came as a big surprise for those who know about the cold relations between the two leaders in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Vajpayee had termed the Godhra incident as ‘unfortunate’ and publically ridiculed the Modi government for failing to prevent it. Since then, the two were never on good terms.

Whether or not Modi succeeded in striking an emotional chord with Vajpayee’s supporters is a different matter, but the Gujarat leader gave enough indications that he will not give up easily.

So is he reinventing himself by copying Vajpayee’s brand of politics to secure NDA’s Delhi ticket? It is yet to be seen whether Modi, seen as an authoritarian and vindictive leader, will be able detach himself from the Godhra taint while imitating Vajpayee.

Modi is known as a leader who tolerates no form of dissidence or opposition and demands unquestionable loyalty, so it will be interesting to see if he can abandon his image of an aggressive leader.

To emerge as an effective coalition leader like his predecessor Vajpayee, Modi needs to learn to cohabit with adversaries and respect the views of others within or outside his party. But the bigger question is - can he do so?

Modi’s personality traits differ sharply from Vajpayee, whose long political career and experience in parliamentary democracy gave him enough maturity to handle rivals comfortably and even win their appreciation, at times.

Modi who has so far followed the `ekla chalo re` philosophy, should learn from Vajpayee who firmly believed that the only way forward in a parliamentary democracy is to rule by consensus. Unlike Modi, Vajpayee did not take the service of propaganda managers to brand him as the most suitable person for the prime minister’s chair. Modi needs to understand that he can’t repeat the Gujarat model and achieve a cult status at the national level without taking the allies as well as his adversaries onboard.

Vajpayee was inarguably the tallest Jana Sangh leader but he also maintained cordial relations with the party’s ideological fountainhead -the RSS- as well as allies. He was tactful enough to mellow down the hard-line image of his party to make it palatable for the allies.

To become the universal face of the party, Modi needs an urgent image makeover. While he needs to win back the confidence of Sangh Pariwar, which fears that his rise will overshadow it, he needs to win more allies and look beyond Gujarat, which has been the BJP’s laboratory of Hindutva politics since Godhra riots.

Modi has so far refrained from taking up issues of national importance such as cross-border terrorism, Kashmir imbroglio, foreign policy matters and India’s equation with Pakistan. He needs to speak of peace and tranquility and bring Hindus and Muslims together to strengthen the country’s secular fabric. He must project himself as a crusader for human rights and justice and a global democratic leader.