By Rajdeep Sardesai
Barring a miracle, at some stage on Friday, Narendra Modi will be poised to fulfill his long-cherished ambition of being the next prime minister. Yes, exit polls have a spotty record in the country, but unless we have all got it horribly wrong, there is no reason to believe that there isn’t a Modi ‘wave’ in large parts of the country, if not a tsunami.
When Modi writes his blog and thanks the Indian voter, here are a few more thank you cards he should send out. On top of the list will be Rahul Gandhi. No individual can be held solely responsible for a party’s electoral defeat, but the fact is, Gandhi had his chance and fluffed it. His approach to the elections was collegiate: Almost as if he was participating in a student council election and not in a battle for the heart of India.
The Congress campaign was listless and confused, perhaps because the general wasn’t in a position to set the agenda. The ‘face’ of a party needs to offer a big idea: Modi offered hope and aspiration, Gandhi stood for the status quo. His refusal to take an office of responsibility in the Manmohan Singh government or launch a sustained campaign on any specific issue was equally calamitous. The ‘divine right to rule’ principle no longer holds in Indian politics: Gandhi needed to prove himself by doing the real heavy lifting, not by midnight stays in a Dalit home or suddenly waking up to call his own government’s ordinance “nonsense”.
By the time he eventually agreed to lead the ship in January this year, he had been pigeonholed as Rahul Baba, a dynast who couldn’t be taken seriously. The next thank you card must be sent to Manmohan Singh. We are in the age of communication and to have a prime minister who was in near permanent silent mode was a disaster. Frankly, he should have stepped down well before he finally announced his retirement this year.
Maybe he should have asserted himself on day one of UPA 2 when he was forced to take back A Raja into his Cabinet. Even if he had stepped down in September last year when he was publicly humiliated by Gandhi on the ordinance on convicted MPs, he might have saved himself from an utter loss of face. As it is, a decent man will go down in the history books as little more than a political survivor.
Maybe a thank you note also needs to go to 10 Janpath. Sonia Gandhi’s economic philosophy meant that UPA 2 ran a government on dole, not growth. However wellintentioned, the populist rhetoric created an unsustainable growth model, aggravated by a global economic crisis. No government can survive prolonged inflation and low growth: Jobs, not hand-outs, win you votes.
The weaknesses of Singh and the Gandhis meant that Modi’s muchhyped “chappan kee chaati” (56-inch chest) actually appeared even broader than the reality. Leaders emerge in a context: A government in a state of drift and hobbled by corruption charges allowed the Gujarat chief minister to position himself as India’s Mr. Fix-it, someone whose despotic streak and questionable role in the 2002 riots could be forgiven in the overarching need for a ‘decisive’ leader. The next thank you card must go to Akhilesh Yadav. Uttar Pradesh was always going to be the Kurukshetra of Modi’s political ambitions.
The BJP needed to win big in this state to achieve its ‘Mission 272+’. The party didn’t have the organizational muscle to achieve its aim. But Yadav’s dysfunctional government made it that much easier for Modi’s master strategist Amit Shah to get a foothold in UP. From its handling of the Muzaffarnagar riots to the return of goonda raj, anger against the Samajwadi Party government provided the perfect platform for Modi’s message of change. Modi may also wish to send a thank you card to Mani Shankar Aiyar.
The backbencher Congress MP’s derisive chaiwallah remark was just the kind of opening the BJP’s mascot was looking for. It allowed Modi to rediscover his tea boy past, and contrast his social origins with the elitist moorings of the Congress. Chaiwallah versus shehzada in a merit-driven new India: Even Salim-Javed couldn’t have written a better story line. Other Congress leaders who chose to liken Modi to ‘bhasmasur’ and a ‘cockroach’ could also be thanked since the demonization allowed the BJP’s poster boy to cleverly position himself as a ‘victim’ and an antiestablishment ‘outsider’.
A thank you card might also be sent to Ajit Pawar, the politician who has become the ‘face’ of an arrogant and insensitive Maharashtra government. When confronted with a drought in the state, if a senior leader chooses to ask people to urinate in the dams, then no amount of repentance will lead to public forgiveness. Along with UP, Maharashtra is the other big state turnaround for the BJP. A thank you card should also be sent to corporate India. Never before in the history of Indian elections, has so much big money been riding on the fortunes of one man.
Team Modi ran a brilliant campaign, but it was driven by unlimited access to funds, changing the face of Indian elections, perhaps forever. The final thank you card should be sent to the media: Never before have the Indian media been so open about their role as a political cheerleader. Instead of a serious interrogation of the Gujarat model of development, a powerful section of the media allowed Modi to get away with a mix of genuine achievement, clever marketing and half-truths.
When Modi, for example, almost claimed credit for Gujarat’s ‘White revolution’, the media even forgot to remind him of a certain Verghese ‘Amul’ Kurien. In the making of Brand Modi, the man from Vadnagar owes a huge debt to the media.