Narendra Modi faces his biggest test

This year-end general elections in Gujarat are no ordinary elections. Linked to it is the political fate of one of the most talked about and yet controversial politicians of recent times --Narendra Modi. The verdict will decide his future and perhaps that of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Yet another victory in these polls would propel him to the national centre stage, but a defeat could well spell the doom. Though in  recent months, Modi has been hogging the headlines as someone likely to lead the BJP into its 2014 electoral march, that would seem some distance away as he would first have to clear the Assembly election hurdle in December 2012. Even as the odds are heavily stacked in his favour, the chief minister realises these elections cannot be taken for granted.

Narendra Modi, who was more known as a Sangh pracharak who operated from Delhi as a middling leader, was paratrooped into the state in 2001 and made the chief minister. A shrewd and ruthless politician, he did not take long to consolidate his position and chip away at the Congress’ base. The Godhra carnage and the riots that followed in 2002 were a turning point both for Gujarat and Modi himself, and he led his party to a spectacular victory winning as many as 127 of the 182 Assembly seats.

But in 2007, Modi tried to shed his hardline image, this time focussing more on his developmental agenda. Pre-poll predictions showed that his party would slip down well below the 100 mark. But Modi managed to cling on. With a non existent opposition, he managed to bag 117 seats.

Eluding the noose

In the absence of Vajpayee and the sidelining of L K Advani, Narendra Modi has emerged as a national leader in his own right. The bad news often emanating from the courts dealing with the post-Godhra riot cases have not helped his cause, but he has so far eluded the noose which precariously hangs over his head. He has created an image of a ‘clean’ and ‘performing’ chief minister who has taken Gujarat forward, with little opposition to his leadership. 

But the upcoming elections is a different ball game for Modi, who will not only have to maintain his old record but also prove to the BJP central leadership that he is ready for bigger responsibilities. While Modi himself is confident of reaching an all time high figure of 150 seats and thus break the record of  former CM, Madhavsinh Solanki, analysts say it would indeed be an uphill task. After a decade in power, the BJP workers are a disgruntled lot and it is not easy to motivate them. “Many workers feel that they are used by the party and at the end of the day, they are nothing but a tool to gather people,’’ said political analyst Vishnu Pandya. He pointed out that the recent episode of Sanjay Joshi being forced to resign from the party showed that Modi does not tolerate any criticism.

Party workers might just be one aspect, but the Patels who constitute a large part of the population of Gujarat and once politically very powerful, are seething with anger as the chief minister has studiously ignored them. They are distressed by the fact that in many of the riot-related judgements that have been delivered of late, a number of Patels have been convicted. Senior BJP leader and Patel patriarch Keshubhai Patel has been trying to mobilise them against Modi and even taken up their grouse to the central leadership of the party. “Keshubhai has been trying to project himself as an alternative, he has been attending rallies and addressing people, declaring that Patels were living in fear in Gujarat,” said an analyst.

However, the Opposition Congress remains Modi’s biggest ‘ally’ being unable to highlight the shortcomings of the BJP government, though they have been trying to organise mass rallies. The Congress saw a spark of hope recently by winning a byelection from a constituency considered a BJP stronghold, which would surely make Modi rework his strategies.  

“After Sanjay Joshi was forced to quit the party, the RSS cadre is again back in the Modi camp and that machinery will be fully utilised by the chief minister during the elections,” pointed out Pandya. Realising the indifference of workers in the recent party executive meeting held at Rajkot, Modi ensured he was all ears to the workers, addressing them in Gujarati. 

With the Assembly elections just six months away, the Congress leaders are going all out addressing public gatherings. But once the Modi juggernaut starts rolling out he has a capacity to attract all the attention. Whether it will translate into votes to the expectations of Modi remains to be seen.

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