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BJP’s risky gamble might backfire

It is ironic that the chief minister who was held responsible for the BJP’s 2004 defeat by Atal Behari Vajpayee is now being presented as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

At the same time, BJP president Rajnath Singh is lamenting Vajpayee’s absence from party forums although the former prime minister is unlikely to have been delighted with Modi’s nomination had he been well enough to be present at the BJP’s latest national council meeting.

What this disregard for Vajpayee’s reservations about the Gujarat chief minister confirms is the gap that has always existed between the party’s unchallenged No 1 leader of the past and a large majority of the rank and file who had no time for his moderation.

Since, to them, it is not Vajpayee’s gentle liberalism which should guide the party but Modi’s macho assertiveness, it is hardly surprising that the latter has come out as the winner because the BJP is seemingly pleased to be revisiting the 1990s when its aggressive majoritarianism swayed large sections of  Hindus.

True, there are variations in the replay of the period which saw the party’s percentage of votes at the national level register a steep climb. For instance, the earlier castigation of Muslims, characterised by obscenity as the BBC’s Mark Tully noted during the Babri masjid demolition, is absent this time. Instead, the party is emphasising how it has turned away from the targeting of mosques – in Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura, and the burning of churches, as in Odisha in 2008 – to Modi’s focus on development. But, it is open to question how far the dislike among ordinary people of its violent, anti-minority outlook, which Vajpayee felt led to its defeat in 2004, has subsided. What is more, it is doubtful whether Modi has been able to erase the taint on his reputation caused by his suspected culpability in the 2002 riots, for which Vajpayee considered sacking him from the chief minister’s post.

That Modi has been making desperate attempts to burnish his image is obvious. He has also been successful in persuading a section of foreigners, viz. British and European Union diplomats, to recognise his achievements in boosting Gujarat’s economy. The BJP has been eager to refer to these certificates to bolster Modi’s claims to be the prime minister of this country.

Only the US has refrained from joining the British and EU bandwagon. It is said to be waiting for the court cases on the riots to be over before taking a decision. The certificates from the other white men – or Macaulay himself rather than the deracinated Macaulay’s children, which is the BJP’s term for English-speaking Indians – have followed Modi’s third successive victory in the assembly elections. But, anyone familiar with the BJP’s success in communalising the atmosphere in Gujarat from the time of the anti-Christian riots in the Dangs area before Modi’s ascent will not be surprised by his electoral success.

An example of the potency of the communal virus among Modi’s supporters is provided by the huge increase in the victory margin of the former BJP minister Maya Kodnani in the post-riot elections in 2002 from 75,000 votes in 1998 to 1,10,000 votes – a decade before she was convicted and jailed for leading a murderous mob in the infamous Naroda Patiya incident.

Even as the BJP is rooting for Modi, it is ignoring the possibility of one of the pending court cases, or the judicial inquiry commission’s report, acting as a banana peel on which the candidate can slip. The party is taking a huge gamble, therefore, by focussing on Modi. It is like putting all the eggs in one basket.

Apart from the court cases, Modi faces other disadvantages. One is his unwillingness for an open interaction with even an impartial audience. At the end of his much-publicised address to the students of  a Delhi college, for instance, he simply walked off the stage after presenting his P2G2 – pro-people, good governance – formula without waiting for the customary question-and-answer session. The reason is obvious: he could not afford to take any questions on the 2002 riots.

But, if he is finally chosen as the BJP’s candidate, such evasive tactics will not do. He will have to deal with the national and international media, who cannot but raise the issue of his role during the ‘stray incidents’ of that year, which is how he described the outbreak which claimed 1,200 lives officially and more than 2,000 unofficially.

During his meeting with the EU diplomats, Modi is reported to have said that the riots were unfortunate, but such anodyne expressions will not be enough in the thick of a prime ministerial contest for someone who was described as a ‘modern day Nero’ by the Supreme Court in the context of the riots. (IPA)
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