BJP’s face, message, strategist, and organiserApr 30th, 2009 | By Elections2009 | Category: Resources
|Narendra Modi and the BJP have reduced the Lok Sabha contest in Gujarat to a referendum on the Chief Minister.|
Even before the mysteriously timed judicial intervention materialised four days before Gujarat went to the polls, Chief Minister Narendra Modi had come to define the election scene in the State. His personality, political persona and administrative performance have fleshed out the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral strategy to enhance its tally of 14 out of the 26 Lok Sabha seats from Gujarat. Even L.K. Advani is precariously dependent upon Mr. Modi’s charisma to beat down an unexpectedly strong opposition from a young, local Congress MLA in the prestigious Gandhinagar constituency.
Narendra Modi has come to represent an interesting and, to some, a troublesome model of control and charisma.
“Narendra Modi is the BJP, and the BJP is Narendra Modi,” argues a former Chief Minister. And, a senior political aide of the Chief Minister agrees heartily: “We are able to seek and get votes only in Narendrabhai’s name.”
Nowhere in the country has a regional leader dwarfed the national party so decisively. Kalyan Singh of the 1990s is perhaps the only other man who became similarly critical to the BJP’s electoral fortunes and political appeal.
Mr. Modi is the face, message, strategist, and organiser for the BJP in the battle for Gujarat’s 26 seats. And he does make an indefatigable, imaginative, and in-your-face campaigner. Explained a senior aide: “He is constantly finessing his rhetorical pitch. Every night there is a review session; there is a discussion of which lines, phrases, and images have worked; there is a lot of homework behind all those seemingly effortless but evocative sentences.”
In Ahmedabad, it is mostly Mr. Modi’s visage that dominates the billboards. The message of “strong leader, decisive government” — designed nationally around Mr. Advani — finds perfect resonance around Mr. Modi. And, though there is no visible Hindu-Muslim tension, there is invocation of terror, nationalism, patriotism, all weaved in to pander to the Gujarati middle classes’ incipient regional parochialism.
Realising Mr. Modi’s overwhelming presence in the Gujarati political discourse, the Congress has devised a mostly non-confrontational approach. The refrain is not to attack the Chief Minister, not to give him any opportunity to play the victim, and to let him overtalk himself into fleeting sound-bytes. It is almost as if the Congress has applied “closure” on the 2002 riots.
Instead, its accent is on questioning Mr. Modi’s claims on performance, as also on selling the Manmohan Singh government’s achievements, on the Prime Minister’s reputation as a good manager of the economy, and on the party’s sales pitch of stability and growth. What is more, the Congress has refused to be provoked even as the Chief Minister tried to hit its national leaders below the belt. On their part, the Congress candidates have concentrated on local issues, thereby diluting Mr. Modi’s pan-Gujarat appeal.
While this larger-than-life profile has enabled Mr. Modi to elbow other “generation next” leaders such as Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh out of the BJP’s picture frame in Gujarat, he has also taken a calculated risk: he needs to demonstrate that given a free hand, he will be capable of winning votes and seats for the party. The Chief Minister’s media managers whisper: “20 to 22.” The BJP spin-doctors insist that there is no way the Congress will secure more than four seats. Unless the BJP wins at least 20 seats, questions will be raised about the advisability of converting the election into a referendum on Mr. Modi. Any tally below 20 would, of course, have consequences for the Chief Minister’s leadership claims beyond Gujarat.
And that is where the problem begins. Even Mr. Modi’s admirers are flummoxed by how he selected BJP candidates. Many of them have just crossed over from the Congress, some have a definite tainted past, and, some were involved in a cooperative bank scam a few years ago. The choice of such dubious characters has distracted from the Chief Minister’s image as a no-nonsense man, besides putting the onus on him to see the chosen ones through.
Admittedly, if Mr. Modi has prospered politically it is only because the BJP enjoys a decisive edge over the Congress in terms of organisational presence and resourcefulness in Gujarat. Still, the party has become totally synonymous with the Chief Minister; the electorate has to be appeased with the promise — even if a distant one — of his becoming Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, this total focus on one man has reduced other senior leaders to virtual non-entities. And the Chief Minister’s own preference to rely on the government’s machinery to build up his image has left the cadres somewhat out of practice for the gruelling electoral scrimmage. The outcome will have lessons for other Chief Ministers, too.
Mr. Modi has come to represent an interesting — and, to some, troublesome — model of control and charisma. A senior ministerial colleague recently compared him to a ringmaster who has competently tamed the corporate lions. The entire bureaucracy has cheerfully slipped into the role of the Chief Minister’s cheerleaders. All State-level BJP leaders have faded into political irrelevance. The media too have been made to appreciate the advantages of appreciating the Chief Minister. It is this model of control and charisma that is on test in the Lok Sabha elections in Gujarat. The outcome will be of interest way beyond Gujarat.