Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister, orator extraordinaire, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Hindutva exponent and friend of business and businessmen, is the flavour of the season everywhere he goes.
At the annual Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) meeting in New Delhi last week, where head honchos of business network with each other and with politicians, Modi was the centre of attraction. When he cracked a joke, the audience, largely composed of businessmen and women whose companies are worth at least a few thousand crores of rupees, cackled and laughed loudly, as if they hadn’t heard a joke as good in a long time.
Some did try to ask him about his politics, remembering, somewhat guiltily, that he oversaw the Gujarat riots five years ago, where between 1,000 and 3,000 Muslims were killed, depending on whose version you go by. But the gentleman quickly reassured them: Your businesses will never be in trouble, he said. I will give you enough electricity and water to run your projects, and if you have any trouble with labour, just call and tell me, he added.
Only Anu Aga, the lady who single-handedly built the Thermax brand as well as one of a small handful of businesspeople who spoke out against Modi during and after the riots of 2002, had something contrary to say and she eventually didn’t say it. “I want to ask him how he can say that Gujarat sleeps safely at night when the whole state is ghettoized,” she told a friend.
Modi, and another BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, are the party’s star campaigners in Karnataka, which goes to the polls on 10 May (the second and third stages will be held on 16 May and 22 May). Both are guaranteed crowd pullers. Swaraj speaks a smattering of Kannada, right from the time she campaigned against Indira Gandhi at Chikmagalur, and more recently, gave Sonia Gandhi a fright in Bellary in 1999.
Modi flies in from Ahmedabad after 4pm, addresses a few rallies and returns home to be at work the next morning.
You can’t but admire the tenacity and perseverance of the man. Despite his blatant anti-liberal stance, Gujarat has returned Modi to power in the state for the third time with clear margins of victory.
Formula of success
Modi’s formula of success is not unique. He has just used the economic recipe to catapult himself to the top. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that what Modi has done for Gujarat, other so-called secular leaders could have also easily done if they had remembered that they had been elected by the people precisely to improve their daily lives.
A volunteer in the Gandhi Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river told some of us travelling through the state on the eve of the December election that he, and his parents back home in the village, would certainly vote for Modi.
Businessmen at the CII summit held in a swanky New Delhi hotel last week echoed much the same feeling. He ensures our factories work all day, without power cuts and strikes, they said.
Meanwhile in Karnataka, BJP leaders are amazed at the power of Modi’s rhetoric to draw crowds. (Modi speaks Hindi, and most of Karnataka speaks Kannada and only some Hindi).
So here’s the catch: In Karnataka, BJP leaders have warned Modi that at election rallies he can only speak about his pro-people experiences in Gujarat and leave Hindutva alone.
It means that Modi must shelve his rhetoric against Muslims, censor himself when he dreams about the Godhra train carnage five years ago, and emulate at least one of Mahatma Gandhi’s three monkeys: speak no evil.
Once again, that other Gujarati, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, is stirring India’s soul from his grave.
Certainly, the BJP did not leash its star leader during the Gujarat elections. When Sonia Gandhi used her “merchants of death” phrase during election speeches, Narendra Modi joined battle with whoops of joy.
Karnataka seems to be different. Perhaps the BJP doesn’t want to spoil the sympathy it enjoys by blood-curdling rhetoric. Perhaps the caste arithmetic is more complicated there. Perhaps in Gujarat, Modi didn’t need the Muslim vote, while in Karnataka, every vote counts.
Whether the BJP wins in Karnataka or not—and some say there’s a strong wind blowing in its favour—the fact is that the BJP has been forced to temper itself. Is this temporary? Or, is the party experimenting with a new face, a new mukhauta (mask) in the run-up to the general elections?
Lots of people like Anu Aga will be waiting and watching to see what the future holds.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org