Millennium Post

Modi sheds his old skin

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the students of Shri Ram College of Commerce, tried to shed his image of a hardcore Hindutva icon and presented himself as a man of development with catchy phrases. He targeted the constituency of young. The under-35 demographic is now the majority in India, and Modi attempted to address to their perceived grievances with the system. He employed catchy phrases to sharpen his message like — skill and speed, minimum government and maximum governance, mouse charmers, and not snake charmers.

While Modi was selling an India where aspiration and national pride are one and espousing the mantra of development, the BJP President Rajnath Singh threw, perhaps unwittingly, cold water on Gujarat Chief Minister’s efforts to shed his image of an unabashed hardliner by reviving the Ram Mandir issue, which had become irrelevant long ago. While Rajnath reaffirmed BJP’s commitment to Ram temple, the VHP patron Ashok Singhal compared Modi to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi, however, stuck to development as his mantra. While doing this, he carefully distanced himself from VHP’s stance, perhaps, aware that his image as a hardliner was the biggest stumbling block in his attempt to rise to the national centre stage.

Stressing that India’s strength lay in the vast army of youth, the Gujarat Chief Minister said that existing administrative and political systems have to be reworked to make India a global brand. While doing this he was directly addressing Delhi’s restive youth, a group that he repeatedly came out on streets, to have its voice heard on corruption and women safety.

Modi then went on to showcase Gujarat as an example of good governance, obliquely patting himself on the back. Seeking to hard sell himself as the natural leader of young and aspirational India, the Gujarat Chief Minister said he was neither an optimist nor a pessimist. He also repeatedly made the point that what Gujarat was what rest of India was, and the state was serving the country through its own economic success.

Fully aware that he was speaking to a young audience, Modi chose his terms carefully and focused on issues that would connect with them easily — skill development, dreaming big and speed of implementation of policies without delay. Adding that effective governance in Gujarat has led to state’s consistent doubt-digit growth, he said government has no business to be in business. The CM emphasized that India needed better work culture and also better branding, something he himself seemed to be doing all the while.

But where does Hindutva figure within such a discourse of Modi, the Hindutva icon? Despite the focus on development Modi very cleverly attacked the BJP’s secular opponent: ‘Development is the answer to all problems. The country has been destroyed by vote bank politics. In other words, the opposite of development politics is ‘secular rhetoric’. Despite his focus on development, Modi’s address also had a hint of cultural symbolism and national pride.

With the Gujarat model as his mantra, Modi is seen as the party’s best bet to woo back an influential segment of the voters the BJP lost to the Congress in 2009. Rajnath Singh’s mandate, on the other hand, appears to be to set the parivar’s house in order by reaching out to groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal etc. These are groups that contributed significantly to the BJP’s rise in 1990s but moved away in sheer disillusionment at being marginalised once the NDA came to power in 1998. In fact, the VHP actively refrained from campaigning for the BJP in both 2004 and 2009 elections. Rajnath hit the road running.

One of his first moves after becoming the party President was to meet RSS and VHP leaders and reaffirm commitment to the Hindutva agenda. Last week, he was in Allahabad for the VHP’s mega gathering at the Kumbh Mela where he spoke the same language again. It has been many years since a BJP President graced a major VHP meet and Rajnath’s presence signals an attempt to reunite the saffron parivar for the challenges ahead.

Significantly, Modi kept out away from the VHP meet to steer clear of sending mixed messages to the middle class voters he is trying to win over. Brand Modi today is Mr. Development, not Hindu Hriday Samrat of 2002, a title he was conferred after the Gujarat riots.

BJP leaders show no contradiction in the two-pronged strategy that is unfolding. The Sangh leadership is clear in its mind that Modi is BJP’s best bet. They may have their reservations about his unilateral style of functioning but they are aware that only he can enthuse the rank and file in the larger parivar. (IPA)
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