The Heir Less Apparent

Narendra Modi

Ajit SahiAjit Sahi, Editor-at-Large

ANGRY VOICES inside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are beginning to growl at Narendra Modi inside his home state. The Gujarat chief minister was the BJP’s poster boy, the one the party proudly paraded across India in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. They excitedly touted him as a future prime minister, hoping to swing the Hindu votes. The poster boy now faces a looming storm. This, despite the fact that he has won 15 of Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha seats for his party. And when cracks appear within the Gujarat BJP, the terra firma that Modi has controlled with an iron hand, a control that’s made him the darling of Hindutva and fueled his fancy for a national political role, then it’s a red light flashing all the way. To know just how vulnerable Modi is now, one must begin with his home state. For what would Modi be nationally, if only a straw in the winds of Gujarat?

“Just how could we expect someone who had nothing to do with politics or the BJP until a month ago to win on the party ticket? Why was I dumped?” This is the anguished voice of Vallabhbhai Kathiria, a BJP old-timer from Gujarat, who was a minister in former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government and has remained a hardcore cadre of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for decades. Kathiria is livid because this year, Modi denied him a fifth straight shot at the Lok Sabha constituency of Rajkot, even though Kathiria had won it the last four times. Three of those victories had come even before Modi became the Hindutva phenomenon in Gujarat following the mass killings of Muslims in 2002. But Modi gave the BJP ticket from Rajkot to businessman Kiran Patel, a cinema house owner who also runs schools. Patel had never contested any election until then. And this time, he lost. A stinging loss this has been, because Rajkot was the jewel in the BJP’s Gujarat crown. The party has won the seat all six times since 1989, including Kathiria’s back-to-back wins.

“I will certainly speak up whenever the party sits down to analyse the losses,” Kathiria told TEHELKA. (Recognise that this outburst is rare in Modi’s BJP, where his opponents, which have included two former chief ministers, have been sacked for the barest murmur. Few have anyway dared to defy Modi since his most vocal critic within the BJP, his former home minister Haren Pandya, was brutally shot dead in 2003.)

anguish may or may not happen, because the Gujarat BJP still cowers in fear of Modi. But this time, it won’t be easy for Modi to silence Kathiria or other voices that may come up. Rajkot isn’t the only seat Modi has lost the party in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. In 10 other seats, Modi’s handpicked nominees are licking their wounds. At least two others among them were tainted newcomers, who promptly lost the election. This includes the steady seat of Patan in north Gujarat, where Modi forced out the BJP leader who won it four out of the last five times since 1991, including in 2004 when he wrested it back from the Congress. Instead, Modi nominated someone who was once a horseback bandit, implicated for murder and drug running, and someone who was, to boot, a Congress leader until he joined the BJP a few days before the election. He, too, lost.

The BJP’s most infallible icon feels the heat from unexpected electoral losses in Gujarat. Has the poster boy lost his charm?

So why did Modi’s hubris backfire in election 2009?

Remember that Modi engineered a smashing victory in the 2002 Gujarat assembly elections, riding on dubious popularity gained after his government seemed to back the mass killings of Muslims. But 18 months later, he faced a setback, winning only 14 of Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 general election. Subsequently, however, he swept the assembly election in 2007, reconfirming his stature as the unrivalled BJP leader in Gujarat. Taking advantage of his renewed unassailable status, Modi shocked everyone this year by unilaterally deciding not to re-nominate 13 of the BJP’s 14 outgoing MPs without any explanation. (The one spared was his mentor and the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, LK Advani.)

So brazen was Modi that he dropped even a key Advani lieutenant, Harin Pathak. Advani was forced to overrule Modi at the last minute to include Pathak, who went on to win massively from Ahmedabad East. Another MP, Rajendrasinh Rana, a sworn RSS cadre, had to rush to the RSS’ Nagpur headquarters to pressure Modi to re-nominate him from Bhavnagar, the once princely state that he has represented in the Lok Sabha unbroken four times since 1996. He eventually contested, and won.

BUT MODI retired the 11 other MPs and nominated new candidates. As many as four of these won with margins of less than 20,000 votes each on seats that averaged over six lakh votes. In the Panchamahal seat, which includes the infamous Godhra where the Sabarmati Express was set afire in February 2002 triggering the anti-Muslim carnage, the BJP candidate won by a mere 2,000 votes.

“Modi simply wants his MPs to suck up to him, so he brought in rank outsiders as candidates,” says Ahmedabad-based commentator Achyut Yagnik. Adds Ajay Umat, editor of Gujarati daily Divya Bhaskar: “This was Modi’s mistake. Both the party’s leaders and workers refused to work for these newcomers.”

Wait a minute. BJP leaders and workers in Gujarat flout Modi’s diktat? Apparently, yes. Modi met his comeuppance in many constituencies because several of his ministers reportedly worked against his nominees. Unlike in 2004, when he monitored the daily progress of BJP candidates across Gujarat, this time, he was forced to rely on his deputies because he had to travel across India. Modi flew an astonishing 300 hours to attend more than 325 rallies of the BJP in support of scores of other candidates. But his fabled charisma utterly failed to turn the vote in most places despite his headline-grabbing high-strung oratory.

From Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, from Maharashtra to Assam, Modi thundered day after day, attacking Sonia Gandhi’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as opportunistic and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a weak and ineffectual chief executive. Modi’s delusions of grandeur have now made him the BJP’s most shaken man — after Advani, whose dream to be the oldest ever person to become PM lies shattered.

Since the BJP’s rout, Modi has cried off his scathing criticism of the UPA, which crushed the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to win a historic successive second term at the Centre. Modi’s only comment on the loss came on May 18, after he emerged from two days of hiding in his official residence: “The people’s verdict is final in a democracy. We accept it with humility.”

In state after state, Modi’s roughedged campaign failed to bring a favourable result other than in the BJPruled Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh. In Rajasthan, the BJP was routed despite his extensive campaign. The BJP lost heavily in Uttarakhand, where it rules, despite Modi’s presence. The Congress swept the five Lok Sabha seats there. In Orissa, where the ruling Biju Janata Dal dumped the BJP as its ally on the eve of polling, Modi’s electrifying speeches could not stop his party’s defeat: the BJP lost all seven seats it had won in 2004. In Punjab, the BJP returned only one of the three seats it had won in 2004.

Modi’s ignominy in Maharashtra and Goa is worse, because he was given charge of the BJP in these two states, being the only one of the BJP’s six chief ministers asked to handle more than his state. In Maharashtra, Modi held rallies in 20 of the state’s 42 constituencies, even speaking a smattering of Marathi. But the BJP got only one of these 20 seats. Its partner Shiv Sena won two.

In many Gujarat constituencies, several of Modi’s thwarted ministers worked against his nominees

Modi failed to harness the anti-incumbency against Maharashtra’s Congress- NCP ruling alliance. The BJP won only nine seats in the state, four lower than in 2004. Worse, the Congress won four extra from 2004 to go up to 17. Perhaps Maharashtra’s BJP leader Gopinath Munde accurately assessed Modi as just hot air. Munde did not allow the Gujarat chief minister to campaign in his constituency, Beed. Munde won it by more than 1.4 lakh votes.

Indeed, many in the party and its allies did not see Modi as a wonder boy. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan kept his distance from Modi. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United swept Bihar in alliance with the BJP without Modi setting foot in that state. In fact, the BJP more than doubled its seats in Bihar, from five to 12, without any help from Modi.

So what has Modi to do now? Surprisingly, the answer is: back to his much-touted governance. “There is much unrest across Gujarat — water shortage, joblessness among diamond workers, and so on,” says commentator Achyut Yagnik. “The people are beginning to get disenchanted.”