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Modi needs to reinvent himself

The past week was politically very significant especially on the count of the course which the principal opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would adopt in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. While the dust over the last minute replacement of Nitin Gadkari as the party president was still to settle down, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and his acolytes decided to go ahead pushing his name as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

The Gujarat strongman made concerted pitch for himself while addressing the students of Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) of Delhi University. There has been a tradition of political leaders launching their campaign from the hoary campus but it has been either from the famous Maurice Nagar chowk or Convocation Hall located in the Arts Faculty building. Jay Prakash Narayan had started his anti-Congress campaign from Maurice Nagar, so did Vishwanath Pratap Singh against the Rajiv Gandhi government.

Arjun Singh, after resigning from the PV Narasimha Rao government, had addressed a huge gathering at the Arts Faculty hall. SRCC has been a stronghold of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), with several generations of BJP leaders beginning from Arun Jaitley to the present Delhi BJP president Vijender Gupta having attended this college.

However, I have my doubt about Modi choosing SRCC over other venues for the only reason of it being a stronghold of the ABVP. Over the past few years this college has come to rub shoulders with the best in the nation as far as commerce education is concerned. With India going corporate, commerce is, as a youngster would put it, is the in thing.

With its cut-off marks at one point even touching 100 per cent, SRCC alumni have come to command extra-ordinary price in the job market. While addressing students, Gujarat CM knew that he was addressing future corporate leaders. National Democratic Alliance (NDA) convenor Sharad Yadav was not much off the mark when he said Modi was backed by corporate India.

The other development was at the Kumbh Dharam Sansad in Allahabad where the Hindu saints made a pitch for Modi as the prime minister. More important than the pitch which the sadhus made, it was the caution advised by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat which is going to matter. Bhagwat told the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) congregation, that it will be the BJP’s decision on who to project as the face of the party and the Sangh will not be held responsible for the consequences of this decision. ‘The BJP will have to take a decision on what is to be done, whatever we may say, we should allow them to do it, if what they do comes out wrong, then we should let them eat the fruits as well,’ Bhagwat said at Allahabad.

For Modi an endorsement from the RSS immediately after the address to India’s future corporate leaders would have been a double-edged sword. As another Janata Dal (United) leader Shivanand Tiwari put, the Dharam Sansad cannot decide for BJP who would be its prime ministerial candidate. Modi perhaps himself also realises that neither the corporate India nor the spiritual India, but the political India ecides the prime minister.

After all, the VHP Dharam Sansad did not decide on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s name as the prime minister of the NDA government. Nor did Vajpayee ever overtly woo the corporate sector. He was a politician to the core, who had conceived the idea of anti-Congressism in Uttar Pradesh in alliance with farmer leader Chowdhary Charan Singh much before the Ram Mandir movement was even conceived.

Vajpayee even cultivated and promoted Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar for several years, much to the consternation of his party colleagues. This ensured that BJP’s alliance with JD(U) has remained intact despite Vajpayee having departed from scene several years ago. He also structured partnership with diverse groups like Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, Akali Dal in Punjab and Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana.

The hallmark of Vajpayee’s political make-up was his ability at inclusiveness whereas Narendra Modi’s aggressive posturing polarises. His Mian Ahmed Patel comment in Gujarat could make him harvest immediate returns but will not necessarily build up his case at the national level. In Modi’s statesmanship development remains an overt plan – a showpiece but he has also fallen back on polarising vote in his electoral battles in Gujarat.

Therefore Modi has the onerous task at hand to reinvent himself and his party to fight the battle of 2014. BJP in the past few years has greatly slipped on the development agenda despite its state governments promoting policies oriented towards economic growth. It’s the central leadership of the party which has allowed the Congress to wriggle itself out of a grossly uncomfortable situation.

Be it national security, development or corruption, despite the UPA government doing badly on all these fronts for the larger part of its tenure, it has regained the initiative as the BJP failed to witness evolution of leadership which could replace the vacuum left behind by the departure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the centre stage.

With such inner-contradictions, Modi would have the challenge to first settle as leader of the party and then metamorphose his party and himself into a mould that becomes acceptable beyond its core following. Such image change is not always easy as Laloo Prasad Yadav would vouch. Despite a a good tenure at Rail Bhawan he could not shrug his anti-growth image brought as baggage from state politics.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is  consulting editor,
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