Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DESPERATELY SEEKING MODI: TOO LATE?

During the last few days, calls to project Narendra Modi as Prime Minister have grown louder in the BJP. Starting with Arun Shourie, many top leaders of the party have now begun saying openly that he will be the next Prime Minister of India, after LK Advani who has been projected as BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate in these elections. Yashwant Sinha has, in fact, gone to the extent of saying that "India would be lucky to have him as Prime Minister".

The "Modi Wave" is not limited to the BJP or Gujarat only. It is building up elsewhere too. According to a report in the Economic Times of April 29, 2008, in Rajasthan, "so besotted is the average voter by the Gujarat strongman, he would not even blink his eyes before voting BJP were Modi the PM candidate". Party workers there also believe that had the BJP chosen Modi, the score in the state would have been 21-4 in favour of the party. It needs no imagination to conclude that with Modi at the helm, the BJP's tally in Gujarat, his own state, would have been 26-0. Maharashtra too would have been heavily impacted. Indeed the BJP would have benefitted in many other states and ridden to a dramatic victory, had it sought out Modi well in time.

Polling for half the seats has already been completed. And it is only now that BJP leaders have woken up to the power and pull of Modi. No doubt, this chorus of confidence in Modi and the open acceptance of his leadership by heavy weight second rung leaders of the party will enthuse some voters. But since this expression of support has come so late, there is little doubt that the impact will be far less than it would have been had the party announced a few months back, in some form or the other, that Narendra Modi was LK Advani's "running mate", to set at rest all doubts in the minds of party workers and voters who see in Modi the only leader who can replicate the Gujarat's blistering 12% economic growth and more in the rest of India.

Perhaps the last opportune moment for the BJP to project Modi as the No. 2 man in Advani's government and as his successor was in January this year when respected captains of the industry like Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal unequivocally gave their vote of confidence in Modi's ability to be the next CEO of the whole nation. But, that heaven-sent opportunity, backed by hard evidence in the form of spectacular developmental results in Gujarat, was frittered away by the party's leadership.

I had written in August last year itself that the BJP needed to project Modi as PM to take on the challenge of a then resurgent Manmohan Singh and an ambitious Mayawati, who had got very close to the PM's chair that she is after when the Indo-US Nuclear Deal nearly led to the fall of the government. It was clear to me then itself that LK Advani was not the man who could galvanise the party and enthuse voters enough to lead the BJP to victory; if it wanted to win these elections, the party had no choice but to project Modi as its mascot.

One can understand that LK Advani, the man who virtually single-handedly made the BJP into the national force it is today, deserved to be given his due. Particularly when he had earlier shown the most genuine spirit of personal sacrifice by unilaterally declaring that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be the PM, when it was taken for granted that the job was rightfully all his. That would have been appreciated by voters too and they would have willingly settled for Narendra Modi being fomally anointed his deputy and successor.

We can keep talking about the Gujarat riots and keep saying that Modi is a guilty butcher. Yes, the Supreme Court has asked the SIT to investigate the role of Modi and others in the post Godhra riots. But, nothing been found against him yet. And recently in a TV interview to Headlines Today, he went to the extent of saying that if he is guilty, he should be physically hanged and not allowed to get away with a mere apology like Congress leaders have been for their role in the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Also, in the last couple of years he has not made any statement that can be called communal and always speaks of all "five and a half crore Gujaratis"

Whether we hate or like Modi, there is no getting away from the fact that his spotless integrity and demonstrated ability to produce results at at a pace and of a quality that have never been seen in India has caught the imagination of many people, including his once bitter critic Suhel Seth. If you add to this the fact that he is a truly home grown product from an average background and can connect to ordinary people as well as put to shame the highly qualified dream team of Manmohan, Ahluwalia and Chidambaram on their turf, you have a visionary and result-driven mass leader without a peer. No wonder more and more people are climbing on to his bandwagon with every passing day.

The magic of Modi and the electrifying impact that he is making on voters across India has not been made use of by the BJP as it should have been. This election was actually a laid out cake walk for the party: the contrast between what Modi has achieved in Gujarat and what the Congress led central government has not, was too stark to have been left unexploited. But, the strategists of the BJP thought that Advani's less than impressive record as Home Minister and Leader of Opposition was enough to guarantee victory. They had shot themselves in both their feet last year on the issue of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. If that was not enough, they shot themselves again on the Modi issue. Now perhaps they have suddenly realised that they have bled the party needlessly. So after virtually ignoring him for almost a year, they are now desperately seeking Modi.

Is it too late? Will Modi's belated "projection" as the next PM help the BJP get those few more vital seats that will make the difference between defeat and victory? Will Gujarat turn in a 26-0 verdict in Modi's favour on a few days notice? Will voters of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi, UP, Haryana, Bihar etc come out to cast their vote for Modi at this late stage? Or will the BJP rue what might turn out to be a blunder of himalayan proportions, should victory elude it, just? We will find out on May 16.
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