Congress Avoided Taking on Modi in Gujarat, Now He’s Come to Take on it in Delhi

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CongreessModiThere are lessons for all students of media and politics in the rise and rise of the Gujarat chief minister

Aijaz Zaka Syed

No more Modi. That’s what I repeatedly tell myself these days, vowing to stay off the issue for my own emotional wellbeing. Over the past few months there has been so much of media frenzy and overwhelming, blanket coverage of the man and all the controversies surrounding him in Indian media that we have all begun to feel the fatigue. You see the ‘development man’ (vikas pursh) staring back you in the face, disconcertingly, from newspaper front pages and television screens day after day.  It seems there is no escaping Modi mania whether you are in the ever bustling Delhi or in distant Dubai.  He is everywhere—literally.

Apart from his divisive politics and strong emotions the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful generates on both sides of the divide, what has intrigued and amazed me the most is his phenomenal rise and evolution right before our eyes as a ‘brand.’ From a hated, minor regional satrap who presided over the worst and most organized religious pogrom in the nation’s history, he has successfully been built into a messianic figure aspiring for the leadership of the world’s most populous democracy.

In the face of numerous court cases and strong resistance from rights group and activists and a large section of Indian society that still holds on to the old-fashioned ideas about pluralism, justice and rule of law, Modi’s spinmeisters and media mangers, with the active support of corporate media of course, have not just been able to take care of all the bad press and his negative image; they have accomplished something that was considered impossible. They have managed to put him within the striking distance of Delhi.

The giant propaganda machine working for him has managed to create a scenario where no eyebrows are raised any longer at the prospect of someone, who has the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands and enough incriminating evidence to nail him, leading Gandhi’s nation.

The enablers in the media, who are magnanimous enough to concede that “some mistakes” had been made by the Gujarat leader in the summer of 2002, insist he is a reformed man today and has done a “lot” for the Muslims post pogrom. They say he has moved on and forgotten the past, urging his detractors to do the same.

‘Look to the future. Look at all the development Gujarat has seen under Modi over the past 12 years and think of all that he could do for the rest of India if elected,’ we are told ad nauseam.

Poll after opinion poll projects him as the darling and the future of the great republic. The fast multiplying middle classes and the young seemingly cannot wait to enthrone him. And the man seems to know and revel in the exalted state. There is a new spring in his step and a growing confidence and smugness in his speech and manner.  Looks like no one can stop the son of a chai-wallah, in his own words, from ruling India after all. The consecration of Narendra Modi is nearly complete.

There are lessons for all students of media and politics in the rise and rise of Modi the politician. Making of Brand Modi against all odds and received wisdom can be a compelling case study.

To be fair though, all the credit for the successful making and marketing of Brand Modi cannot be claimed by media and communication strategists.  Some credit should go to his friends in the Congress as well.

All these years, the country’s oldest political party in its wisdom carefully avoided taking on the Gujarat leader on his home turf for fear of pricking Hindu sensibilities. Which does no justice to the generous spirited majority of Hindus.  The Congress pretended as though Modi with all that he stands for did not exist.

Despite being in power in Delhi for the past ten years, it didn’t lift a finger to confront the man and his redoubtable legacy. If justice has been done in some cases and the law caught up with a couple of Modi’s ministers, it is not because of the UPA government but in spite of it.

The credit for which goes to courts and courageous voices like those of Teesta Setalvad and Mukul Sinha and police officials like Rahul Sharma.  The Congress looked the other way while Modi mocked the idea of a democratic and plural India.

And now he has come to take on the Congress in Delhi, emerging as the worst nightmare of the party that was once led by stalwarts of the Independence movement. This is some poetic justice, isn’t it? Serves the grand old party right.

Six months before the 2014 face-off, the Congress hasn’t got a clue what to do with the problem called Modi. As a BJP leader happily pointed out, with all these corruption scandals and his Hamletian indecisiveness, Manmohan Singh is proving to be the best polling agent for the man who could replace him.

No wonder Indian voters are looking forward to 2014 while the Congress wants all opinion polls proscribed. But you can’t keep the bad news out by killing the messenger, can you?

The Congress could have perhaps arrested its free fall if it had done some bold course correction a year or two ago. Changing horses midstream isn’t such a bad idea when the alternative is going totally down under. Now it is too late to do so, I suppose. Especially when the heir apparent appears so singularly reluctant and unwilling.

There is perhaps one way the Congress can still turn around its political fortunes and those of the country by declaring Sonia Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate, as Dipankar Gupta suggests. Come to think of it, the idea isn’t as absurd as it sounds.

The eminent sociologist from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of ‘The Revolution From Above—India’s Future and Citizen Elite’ believes that Sonia’s personal charisma and gravitas could still rescue the Congress.

I am not so optimistic though. The Italian-born president of the Congress still enjoys wide popular support despite the disaster of the UPAII. But I am not sure she can work her magic so late in the day and save the Congess from itself. Besides, she has serious health issues and may not be capable or willing to take on the challenge.  On the other hand, the BJP has repeatedly made it clear that it will make her foreign origins, and probably her Catholic faith, an issue if she ever takes the plunge.

Be that as it may, unless the Congress takes some dramatic and extraordinary measures or joins hands with other secular political players, Modi’s capture of Delhi looks an increasing possibility.

However, as N Ram cogently argues in The Hindu, “2002 as a legal, political, and moral problem will not go away in the conceivable future. The problem could only become more complicated, domestically and internationally, were Modi to become Prime Minister.”

Terming the 2002 pogrom as the ‘elephant in the BJP’s parlor,’ Ram says: “There’s a strategic calculation behind the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s position on what happened in 2002. It is this benighted chapter in contemporary Indian history that appeals reflexively to the Parivar and feeds naturally into its core communal agenda. It’s this unbreakable genetic connection between 2002 and the present that makes it clear that a Modi prime ministership would be disastrous for democratic and secular India — where the Constitution’s most important commandment, that nobody is more or less equal than anyone else, can be honored in principle as well as in practice.”

Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson, would agree. Responding to the ongoing debate about the first home minister and the BJP’s clever appropriation of his legacy, Gandhi who also happens to be Patel’s biographer told Karan Thapar: “Patel would not have recognized Modi as his ideological heir and wouldn’t have endorsed him.”

That is, however, like water off the duck’s back for the man who has taken so much in his stride over the past decade and more.

* Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of Caravan. Email: editor@caravandaily.com

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