Narendra Modi today claims to derive inspiration from Sardar Patel and Swami Vivekananda even if his original icon was the long-serving RSS chief Guru Golwalkar. Patel and Vivekananda are natural choices for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate: with Patel, there is the instant strongman from Gujarat connect, while Vivekananda gives him the image of an ‘inclusive’ Hindu nationalist. The truth is Modi’s real role model in the 2014 election is someone very different: Former prime minister Indira Gandhi.
The choice of Indira may seem highly incongruous at first. Modi has claimed in the past that his decision to enter public life was cemented during the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat in the early 1970s directed against Indira’s government. He, like many opposition leaders, has referred to the Emergency as the darkest period in India’s democracy. And yet, in his 2014 campaign, he has attacked almost the entire Nehru-Gandhi parivar but stayed away from targeting the lady who in many ways initiated the dynasty cult in Indian politics.
The reason may well be tactical here: Why focus on the grandmother when your battle is with her grandson and daughter-in-law. But there is possibly another explanation: Modi’s approach to politics, and in particular to the campaign of 2014, is not too dissimilar to the Indira campaign of 1971. Then, the campaign was starkly presidential too: the slogan was Garibi Hatao, Indira Lao, Desh Bachao. Now, the appeal is similarly individualistic: Congress Hatao, Modi Lao, Desh Bachao.
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Like Indira in 1971, Modi too has sought to make the mandate about his personality. Give me (“me”, not just the BJP mind you) power and I will transform the country. In 1971, Indira too sought to rise above her party and establish direct contact with the masses. The Congress had just gone through an almost vertical split and Indira had lost most of the old guard. This perhaps made it easier for her to impose her writ on the ‘new’ Congress and make the party organisation subservient to her personality.
Much the same is happening in the BJP in 2014 with a slight difference. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has been a cadre-based organisation which gets its muscle from the RSS. Modi’s ascent has enthused the cadre in a manner in which even the original BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was perhaps unable to do. But while the rank and file party worker is galvanised, the rest of the BJP leadership itself is being pushed into the shadows.
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Watch a Modi rally: No BJP leader is given even remotely the kind of status or positioning that the man from Gujarat is. In the space of six months since being anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi has risen from being the first among equals to being the unquestioned ‘Supremo’ of his party. At most rallies of Modi, the only other national BJP leader who gets some importance is party president Rajnath Singh. Singh is though, at best, a side act, perhaps a reminder that if Modi doesn’t quite get the magic number he needs to be prime minister, then there is a potential consensus candidate waiting in the wings. All other gen-next leaders of the BJP are barely seen or heard. Election tracker surveys done by CSDS for CNN-IBN in the last six months show that no other BJP leader even registers any longer in the public mindspace as a potential prime ministerial aspirant.
Indeed, the remarkably single-minded zeal with which Modi has criss-crossed the country in the last few months as part of his ‘Mission 272’ is reminiscent of what one reads of Indira’s 1971 campaign. In the pre-television era, she addressed rallies in almost every nook and corner of the country. Modi, who, unlike Indira, is a natural orator, has chosen not to leave out any part of India, even seemingly unwinnable states like Tripura, where the BJP has a negligible presence.
It is almost as if for the first time since Indira, a leader is consciously attempting to build a pan-Indian appeal that will enable him to rise above his own party’s limited geographical base. He has even made multiple forays into states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where again the BJP has little chance of winning seats, if only to create a psychological edge of looking beyond the Vindhyas.
The Modi-Indira similarities don’t end there. Like the former Congress prime minister, Modi trusts very few people. Authoritarian and insecure in equal measure, Modi’s ruthless streak has ensured that after a decade of ruling Gujarat his writ is unchallenged. Indira, too almost decimated an entire generation of Congress leaders at the state and national level with similar imperiousness. Critics would like to see this as chillingly dictatorial; loyalists would term this as evidence of ‘decisiveness’. The line between being dictatorial and decisive is often a thin one, but clearly both Modi and Indira attract similar extreme opinion, even within their own parties in private conversation.
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In 1971, the Congress riding the Indira wave won 362 of the 520 seats, a gain of 134 seats and a clear two-thirds majority. Modi’s chances of doing an Indira-like performance seem unlikely, given the BJP’s own limited catchment area and the rise of strong regional parties. But what if Modi were to win two-thirds of the seats in the 300-odd constituencies where the BJP today is seen to have a fighting chance?
Whatever the final outcome, it is becoming clearer by the day that the election of 2014 is now Modi versus the rest much like 1971 was Indira versus others.
Post-script: Like Indira, Modi too seems fond of wearing the symbolic headgear of the region where he travels. Except the one occasion during his Sadbhavna Yatra in 2012, where he refused to wear a Muslim prayer cap. And therein lies perhaps a key difference in the politics of Modi and Indira.
The views expressed by the author are personal