The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s leadership may have anointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, but party workers at his first rally since the appointment christened him as the bhaavi pradhan mantri (future Prime Minister). Nearly three lakh people, though some estimate a higher figure, turned up for a glimpse of Modi at the rally in Rewari, Haryana. The participants of the rally had arrive from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, though the bulk of the crowd was from Haryana itself. The crowd spilled on to the road outside the venue built to hold around two lakh.
The rally itself, however, was poorly managed – a stage made for mediapersons collapsed because of a greater load than expected and people leaning against it to get a glimpse of Modi. The police had to resort to lathicharge on several occasions to control the crowd.
Ram Prasann Singh, a retired soldier from nearby Bikaner village, said, “The last such major rally was when Indira Gandhi had come here, but that was a crowd of 40-50 thousand. Before elections, that is the number such rallies hit, but never this size.”
Retired (army) Havaldar Ram Narayan, a resident of Rewari, said, “It is true that everyone makes poll promises but the Congress has had its chance. This man sounds convincing,” Others echoed this sentiment and were convinced that the BJP would win most of the seats across the country and come to power. An auto-rickshaw driver said that in his and his in-laws’ villages, people only spoke about Modi and bringing him to power.
In his speech, Modi talked about ex-servicemen’s welfare, national security policy, foreign policy and the “change required in the government in Delhi which does not understand what’s happening elsewhere.” He claimed that divine intervention made him the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “My last rally here was with Atal Behari Vajpayee, but things have changed. Haryana is going to shake up the Delhi Sultanate,” he said.
On the Military
The Gujarat CM had come here to woo ex-servicemen for the upcoming general elections. He started off with an anecdote about how he had once aspired to join the army. “I knew that the way to serve the nation was to join the army,” he said. However, as he could not afford the train fare to go for the admission exam to the Jamnagar Sainik school, he explained, he was not able to realise his dream.
Modi praised the defence services for their efforts in providing the country security as well as protecting people during natural calamities such as the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat and the recent floods in Uttarakhand. “It was the IAF choppers and the army jawans who martyred themselves to rescue pilgrims and locals from the tragedy,” he said.
He also praised the army for carrying on the tradition of “true secularism” since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, where, he claimed, all religions had fought together. “When the government wanted to carry out a religion-based census through the Sachar committee, the army objected,” he declared.
Recounting his efforts to help the army, the Gujarat CM said that he had built a 700-km-long drinking water pipeline for defence personnel posted on the Gujarat-Pakistan border to replace the 800-odd camels they used for their drinking water supply. He promised that if he became the Prime Minister, he would ensure that all ex-servicemen receive the same benefits and respect.
He congratulated the team of Indian scientists for the successful test-firing of the Agni-5 missile on the morning of 15 September: “We are so used to hearing bad news of late that this was some wonderful news.” He lashed out at the defence spending in the country which, he claimed, was directed towards importing defence equipment. He termed it wasteful as well as risky for the country’s security. “We import from countries that could easily choke the supply when we are at war as per their policies. We would be helpless then. The country’s policy should be to increase spending on developing defence equipment in the country by using our vast pool of world-acclaimed scientists so that we can export such equipment to other nations,” he said.
He declared that the UPA government had no respect for the country’s soldiers and lambasted defence minister AK Anthony for his recent comments on Indo-Pak border incidents in which Indian soldiers were killed: “How can the Defence Minister make a statement that people wearing Pakistani army uniforms killed Indian soldiers?” Attacking the UPA government, he said, “Till the time there is a capable government at the centre, there can be no guarantee of the country’s security.”
Incidentally, during the speech, he forgot the name of Olympian Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, after which he consulted his notes and praised him.
He took a strong stand against India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, claiming that Pakistan was training and using terrorists to wage war against India. “When the democratic government took over in Pakistan, we thought things would change. But nothing has changed. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government’s foreign policy ensured that the world did not pay much heed to Pakistan. But, this has gone back to square one in the last five years,” said Modi.
He added that India’s wars were no longer wars between legitimate nations, but “against terrorists and Maoists, which only a strong government with effective policies can address.”
Statue of Unity
During the rally, Modi announced a statue to honour Sardar Vallabbhai Patel who claimed was the country’s true unifier: “I want every farmer to give me steel from his plough to honour this man who was himself a farmer and brought farmers to the country’s freedom struggle. It will be used to build a ‘statue of unity’ in Patel’s birthplace in Gujarat and will be twice the size of the ‘Statue of Liberty’.”
Modi’s elevation as head of the party’s campaign committee and the recent announcement as PM candidate had met with some opposition from senior leaders in the party, including open conflict with veteran leader LK Advani. Party leaders had pacified Advani by saying that the decision to make Modi the PM candidate would be made by the parliamentary board of the party – a body over which Advani held substantial clout. However, Modi’s selection as the prime ministerial candidate was a result of the popular support for Modi, which was also evident at the rally. Advani’s recent rallies, in sharp contrast, have not been able to attract such a large audience.
The rally was dedicated to ex-servicemen to woo them as a unified vote bank. The momentum to politically organise ex-servicemen under a single banner started a while ago when the political ambitions of former Indian Chief of Army Staff, General (retired) VK Singh became clear. Army Welfare associations estimate that ex-servicemen, with a population of more than 35 lakh, could constitute a vote bank and make a difference in as many as 150 constituencies, besides influencing the voting patterns of friends and family.
The BJP has several cells catering to different segments of society such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities, etc. While an ex-servicemen cell, led by Brigadier (retired) BD Mishra, was there in the party, it did not attract as much attention as VK Singh and Modi did in their recent rally. General VK Singh, a native of Haryana, had earlier openly challenged the Congress in the very constituency of the Gandhi family – Rae Bareilly. Though slated to join the BJP at this rally, Singh made no such announcement. He, however, said, “Our army is not weak, but we must change the government that has designed policies which have weakened our army. I have seen armies in several countries, but none are as brave as our soldiers. In our country one officer is martyred for every 17 jawans – a ratio higher than that of any other country. Our officers lead from the front.”