Tainted image to haunt Modi

Reaching out: As elections approach, BJP's PM contender bids for pan-India footprint

Tainted image to haunt Modi

Soon after the metropolitan court rejected a petition challenging the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigation Team’s clean chit, BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had tweeted: ‘Satyameva Jayate…I feel liberated.’ Now that the last hurdle gone, Modi’s ascent is unstoppable. At least, that is the kind of mood in the BJP.

The question is can Modi’s public relations team really make an image makeover for him? Will not the past continue to haunt him with all the tell-tale incidents still fresh in people’s mind? Will Modi’s new initiatives make any real difference with the minority groups? And finally, to what extent will Nagpur–headquarters of BJP’s mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh– allow him the much needed leeway?

The next day of the court verdict, Modi came up with a 1000-word blog, but failed to express an outright apology or regret. May be this is because that will not be palatable to the hardline parivar leaders. But he makes his desire loud and clear. He would use the opportunity to reach out to a wider section of the voters who had all the while remained antagonistic to him. He says: “I will now also hope many others out there trying to understand and connect with the real Narendra Modi would feel more empowered to do so.” 

Modi then tries to explain, in his own blog style, who the ‘real’ Narendra Modi is and blames his rivals in and outside the party for ‘perpetuating pain’ in him through falsehood and insinuations for 11 years. “I had appealed to the people of Gujarat on the day of the Godhra train burning; fervently urging for peace and restraint…We choose peace over violence. We choose goodwill over divisiveness,” Modi claims. 

Clearly, the effort is to wipe off his divisive persona. Throughout, the blog reflects his determination to remodel himself as not being antagonistic to the minorities–the baggage he has been carrying since 2002. The tone and tenor of the blog signals the Team Modi’s elaborate gameplan to use the court reprieve to launch a massive campaign projecting him as the one who has come out of the agni pariksha. With an air of injured innocence, he can now assail his opponents for all the vilification in the past. He is certain to make fervent appeals to the alienated minorities to accept him as their well-wisher. 

Apart from wooing the minorities, the Team Modi expects the court reprieve to impact at three levels. Immediately, the BJP can cite its newly acquired clean image to rope in regional parties for seat sharing. 

At present, the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal are the BJP’s only allies. Chandrababu Naidu is still sitting on the fence. After the clean chit, no party has responded to the new initiative. Talks with Vaiko of Tamil Nadu’s MDMK party had progressed before the court verdict. State’s PMK remains cool.

It seems BJP negotiators have already realised that for the time-being, pre-poll alliance is not the priority of the regional parties.

At the second level, that is post-poll, the field is wide open. Everything depends on the figures and every political party will settle for the best bargain. In case the BJP reaches within the striking distance, the intending allies can certainly use Modi’s claimed image makeover as a pretext to join the NDA.   

Impact at the third level relates to BJP’s internal tussles. In his blog, Modi has vaguely hinted at the post-election scenario where his party reaches 200 plus. Those like L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Shivraj Singh Chauhan may certainly be more acceptable to the liberal allies who enjoy large minority vote base. Can a ‘clean Modi’ now get the support of such secular parties? This is something difficult to answer at this stage. 

As for reconciliation with the minorities, Modi suffers from serious limitations. Co-option of Muslims is not a new idea. His team at Swarnim Sankul complex in Gandhinagar have calculated that even if BJP gets one-third of the minority votes, it could win an extra 40 seats.

 But the RSS hardliners have in the past two months scuttled all such moves. For instance, Modi’s campaign managers had made bulk purchases of skull caps and burqas for distribution. This was to show that a big section of Muslims attended Modi rallies. Then Hindutva hardliner Pravin Togadia decried it and the RSS shot down the move. At Bhopal, RSS workers even disallowed local Muslim groups into Modi’s mega rally.

Already, Modi’s campaign strategists are hamstrung by micro-management by the RSS. In public, Nagpur offers all patronage and allows him to be BJP’s mascot. But he will not be above the parivar. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has established a new system of direct control of the post-Advani BJP. Normally, all routine RSS-BJP coordination issues have been handled by the BJP general secretary in charge of the organisation. Senior RSS-deputed pracharaks like Sundar Singh Bhandari handled it for a long time. 

For a brief while when Vajpayee was the prime minister, this post remained badly devalued. Now it is held by Ram Lal. Those who had listened to Bhagwat’s address at a book releasing function last month would not miss his increasingly patronising tone. There is constant monitoring of the utterances and actions by the party seniors. RSS emissaries supervise BJP’s organisational programmes to minutest details.

Ram Lal and RSS No. 2 Bhayyaji Joshi had last month attended even the BJP leaders’ meeting to set dates for the campaign committee and national council meetings. Trusted by Nagpur and fairly Modi-friendly, BJP chief Rajnath Singh has clearly emerged as the most crucial player in BJP politics. His emergence as a power centre is more due to his proximity to the parent body and ability for quiet internal consultations.

This is in sharp contrast to Narendra Modi’s own weighty style. Many fear what some call the wily Thakur (Rajnath) is quietly building up a collective system with a strong RSS presence to ensure that another Vajpayee taller than the parivar does not emerge. In fact, this well suits the hierarchy’s new control freaks. If this really takes shape, it is bound to restrict the much acclaimed ‘can-do’ image of the prime ministerial candidate. 

Consider the decisive RSS intervention on the Supreme Court verdict on the same-sex marriage. Modi had lobbied hard to go along with the gen-next so that it will enhance his modernist image. But after three days of confabulations, it was Rajnath who had finally broken the silence. To this day, Modi has not uttered a word on Section 377. In the final analysis, the deep-rooted suspicion by the minorities and limitations imposed by an assertive RSS will make it difficult for Modi to make any effective use of the court reprieve.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)

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