With a substantial section of the Indian media choosing to hype the upcoming 16th General Election as an American presidential style contest between Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, it is not surprising that popular interest in the controversial leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has grown exponentially in recent months. Predictably, two journalist-authors and their publishers have sought to ride the crest of this wave of interest about a person who is arguably the most divisive and deeply contentious political personality in India at present.
It is, of course, a separate matter altogether that Modi’s attempts to project himself as a potential prime minister of the world’s largest democracy may well come to nought and his endeavours at playing a wider role in national politics outside Gujarat may prove to be more bluff and bluster than hard realpolitik. It is also very likely that if he is indeed sought to be projected as the tallest leader of the BJP, he will run into considerable opposition from not just within his own party, but, more importantly, from within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition headed by the BJP. There is a real and present danger that the NDA may implode if Modi acquires the stature that he apparently seeks, an outcome that would likely result in the coalition’s next largest constituent, the Janata Dal (United) led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, breaking ranks with the BJP.
Even more significant is the fact that it will be extremely difficult — rather impossible — for a so-called national political party and one of its important leaders to aspire to lead a heterogeneous country like India on a Hindu nationalist agenda after alienating one out of seven of the country’s citizens who believe in some variant or the other of the Islamic faith. Despite his best efforts at wooing them in his state, Muslims in India have a visceral hatred for Modi and this is hardly a secret inside and outside the BJP. In fact, as many political analysts have argued, the best bet for the Congress is to have a strong Modi in Gujarat, for this automatically ensures that Muslims and a section of ‘liberal’ Hindus remain distant from the BJP.
As Kingshuk Nag points out right in the beginning of The NaMo Story — much shorter and more tightly written than Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times — there is perhaps no one in the country who is indifferent to Modi: you either love him or you hate him. His personality is not amenable to dissection in nuanced shades of grey. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ as far as the Gujarat chief minister is concerned. Nag is clear where he stands. He is certain (as is this reviewer, who has been quoted in The NaMo Story) that Modi will never ever be able to live down the fact that he presided over an administration that oversaw the genocide of at least 700 Muslims, most of them in Gujarat’s capital Ahmedabad, in a three-month period between late- February and early-May 2002. The ghosts of the not-too-distant past will invariably return to haunt Modi over and over again, no matter how hard he tries to change his public image to that of a go-getting, pro-business leader, the chief executive officer of an industrialised and commerce-friendly state. Some of his overtures have borne fruit: it is hardly surprising that he is the only leader who has been showered with so many accolades by corporate captains, who otherwise prefer to play coy about disclosing their preferences about political leaders.