We want a Congress Mukt Bharat,” thundered Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election campaign, a slogan echoed repeatedly BJP president, Amit Shah. The declared goal was not just to win an election, but to “eliminate” the Congress from the country’s national political map. Two years later, the Modi-Shah duo’s ambition is on track. If at the start of 2016, the Congress was ruling in nine states, it is now in charge in just seven states after its governments were dismissed in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
It was a picture that radiated temporal Lutyens-land power: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar flanked by half a dozen Union Cabinet ministers, including the finance minister, the BJP president, the Delhi chief minister and the Lok Sabha speaker. Arun Jaitley may have filed a criminal defamation suit against Arvind Kejriwal, the BJP leadership and the Aam Aadmi Party may be engaged in a bitter war of words, but Sri Sri’s political-cultural jamboree along the Yamuna floodplains appeared to melt away the differences.
A few years ago, I was sitting next to Manohar Parrikar on a flight. The defence minister was then Goa chief minister and was travelling economy, dressed in trademark half-sleeve shirt, trousers and chappals. When we landed, he waited for his suitcase to come on the conveyor belt, and then pushed the trolley on his own. No retinue of personal attendants accompanying him, nothing that would remotely suggest a VIP culture. His parting shot as he exited the airport, “all of you think only Arvind Kejriwal is an aam aadmi chief minister.
Heads of our soldiers are being cut but we are feeding their prime minister chicken biryani. This country is ruled by weak leaders,” Narendra Modi speech in May 2013.
“Mr Prime Minister — No dialogue over dead bodies. Please cancel your meeting with Nawaz Sharif,” Sushma Swaraj tweet in September 2013.
News channels always face a ‘dharam sankat’ when Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi speak at the same time. In the last few years the tendency has been to relentlessly focus the cameras on Mr Modi while the Congress leader’s speech is routinely muted or becomes a deferred telecast in what might be seen as an accurate reflection of the two leaders’ contrasting political fortunes.
In a wonderful television series on the great boxing fights, Joe Frazier is asked on his legendary match-ups with Mohammed Ali. “I guess it wasn’t just about boxing, it was personal, we just didn’t like each other,” is Frazier’s candid reply.
What is true of Ali versus Frazier could well be said about politics in this country at the moment. Narendra Modi versus Sonia Gandhi is a battle of political heavyweights that is sharply personal as much as it is a clash of party leaderships.