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AFP (From Outlook 16 December 2013)
Trick shot He s watching, he s being watched
The Juggernaut Creaks
Has the BJP’s spearhead been blunted just that little bit?

Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, was at his thundering best when huge crowds cheered him at his mega rallies. This was only a few fortnights ago. He was hailed as the nation’s greatest crowd-puller and the darling of the middle class, which sees him as a strong PM-in-the-making. But very few had anticipated that the best-crafted political build-up of 21st century India would encounter so many roadblocks so soon. Concerns have begun to surface about the Modi surge, once seen as unstoppable: his crowd-pulling ability is in question; the middle class is disillusioned with him over the Snoopgate expose; and the RSS, whose controlling shadow looms over the BJP, is suspicious of his intentions on a core issue like Article 370.

The crowds at Modi’s first few rallies were attributed to his char­isma. A gleeful Modi would taunt the “shahzada” for his lacklustre shows. But cruel irony has hit back. Modi had to chide the organisers of his November 19 rally in Bhopal: only 7,000 people turned up at a ground where his September rally had drawn 7 lakh. To add to the embarrassment, the shahzada drew bigger crowds in the region. For Modi’s image-builders, it has been a defining moment: charisma cannot be measured by mega rallies. The truth is his big shows were the result of heavy, fund-driven mobilisation. That strategy cannot be repli­cated for every election rally. In Delhi, Modi’s managers had to intervene when the first few rallies drew sparse crowds. Such is the economics and politics of charisma creation.

Modi’s strategists should also be worrying about the middle class’s disillusionment over Snoopgate. The middle class also finds Gandhinagar’s stony silence on the affair scary. Modi’s critics in the BJP squarely blame “saheb and Shah” for the blow Snoopgate has inflicted on the party. On TV and at his rallies, Modi would rail against the authoritarian ways of the dynasty. But the middle-class professionals with whom that held resonance are drifting away from Modi, outraged by the systematic violation of an individual’s privacy. If he can so wantonly misuse the state’s might for personal ends as a chief minister, they ask, what will happen if he takes control in Delhi? Modi had endeared himself to the middle class with the image of a strong leader with control over the party and the bureaucracy. Now, they wonder if horrors such as Snoopgate are the means he deploys to achieve that. Heightening those fears are the horror stories from former IAS and ips officers of Gujarat. Those who stand by established procedure are hunted and shun­ted out; loyalty and direct access to the chief minister supersedes rank. A few loyal ministers and officials rule the roost. Often, ministers get to hear of the chief minister’s views through such officials. This is governance, Modi style.

As for the RSS, it may not have reacted so far to Modi’s kite-flying on Article 370, but Nagpur is apt to view Modi’s deviation on the Jammu & Kashmir issue as blasphemous, just as it did L.K. Advani’s views on M.A. Jinnah. Modi’s critics in the party say his very intentions are being watched with suspicion, so he’s unlikely to show defiance in the near future.

There’s also concern over how Modi and his cohorts are overwhelming the BJP’s organisational framework. Crucial decisions are taken by Modi and his Delhi loyalists in consultation with party chief Rajnath Singh. Veterans like Adv­ani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sus­hma Swaraj were by and large kept out of the election campaign. If they addressed a few rallies, it was at the instance of state leaders. At a recent election rally, Modi derided the “Delhi elite”. The in-house interpretation is that the barb was  directed at the party’s old guard. Stories of sidelining are aplenty. The old guard was kept out of discussions on the BJP manifesto for the Delhi elections, which was stuck on proposals like a 30 per cent cut in power tariff. Modi had first vetoed this, but backed down a week before elections. The manifesto cover didn’t have photos of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Advani and Swaraj. It was recalled and reprinted after senior leaders protested.

This power shift in the party has also had an impact on the candidates’ lists in the assembly elections. Unlike earlier, lists brought by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhararaje Scindia were all approved by the central election committee without much of a scrutiny. Some say this was to deny any role to the “Delhi elite”.

(The writer is former political editor of the Economic Times and the Business Standard.)

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