We have known each other for over 35 years. Your meteoric rise from an ordinary member of the ABVP to a national leader is well deserved. Though you still have to go far to acquire the status of the maximum leader, a national debate around your personality has the potential to minimise your achievements. You are perhaps one of the few workers of the Sangh Parivar who has risen from the ranks through hard work, loyalty, commitment and a frugal lifestyle. You were known as a team-builder and organiser. You were the party’s political strategist who had no connections with elitist opinion-makers or corporate planners. You hardly ever visited a five-star to address an audience or confabulate with your contacts. You were like Arjuna, whose eyes were fixed on the target and whose methods were well defined.
From 1985 to 1999, none of your current followers sought your company, let alone opinion or guidance. They couldn’t imagine that a canteen boy would become the most powerful contender for the PM’s post in less than two decades. They ignored your presence. They even painted you a demon after the 2002 Gujarat riots. While the rest of India bayed for your blood, there were very few in your own party who stood by you. One of them was L K Advani, who saw in you a potential leader. Advani stood like a rock with you and not behind you like other invisible opportunists who didn’t want to be seen as your protectors in public. I remember how Advani pushed you as the candidate for Gujarat chief minister in 2001. Former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana was aware of the problems in getting you anointed by replacing old warhorse Keshubhai Patel. Khurana was sent as observer to organise the transition from the old to the new. Advani put his weight and authority behind you, like he did for other young leaders like Vasundhara Raje, Uma Bharati, Shivraj Chouhan and Raman Singh, despite massive opposition from within. You didn’t let him down in delivering a better government. When you were in trouble over the riots, it was Advani who stood by you in Goa. I was present there, covering the meeting of the BJP’s National Executive. You may not have forgotten the torture you went through those two days. I remember your victorious smile when you were told to continue in spite of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reservations. The majority, led by Advani, overruled the will and wish of the person who was then India’s undisputed darling. You sounded humbled. You returned to Ahmedabad brimming with gratitude and resolved to change Gujarat’s face. You became the state, the party and the only leader.
This time round, you are a different Narendra Modi. Unlike in 2002, your arrival in Goa resembled a general’s. The V-sign was a clear sign of your new mission. Your admirers and supporters put up larger-than-life posters of you along the road from the airport to your hotel. The choreographed welcome was a clear indication of the change in political style. The party, which chose principles over personalities, appeared to be at war with itself; and you were portrayed as the one leading a faction. The BJP meeting was meant to discuss ways and means to win the 2014 elections by trouncing Congress. It wasn’t called to demolish an established hierarchy. But a section of the party now feels that Goa became just another Kurukshetra.
Instead of the party and BJP, you have become both subject and target of the current political discourse. Your detractors haven’t found fault with your economics. But they find the new Modi’s politics a threat to democratic institutions. The conduct and language of your fans like Amit Shah drive even your hardcore loyalists away. Don’t forget that most self-appointed Modi acolytes were once Advani’s courtiers. Advani may not be an attractive proposition for the money-minded Indian middle class, but he is still like a father who can keep a family together.
Please don’t forget that your acceptability will not be measured in terms of how many times you have hosted corporate bigwigs or addressed industry forums in Gujarat or elsewhere. A Time cover story on you may be a topic of discussion over cocktails in urban drawing rooms but will not enthuse semi-literate voters. Your suitability for a national responsibility will not be judged by how many media-hyped interactions you’ve had with college students. You even shared the dais with corporate leaders who were college alumni. Your eagerness to woo foreigners or NRIs isn’t a strategy that will ensure broader acceptability. Don’t get carried away by the number of requests which you now get from ambassadors seeking appointments. They want to assess you as a person and not as a leader who has delivered a unique development model. After 2002, you were a pariah for them. Most of them funded NGOs who are in the forefront of launching long-drawn legal and social battles against you. They will not miss an opportunity to support the cause of the types of Nitish Kumar once they feel that you have lost your relevance. Some are already whispering about your inability to take your own parivar along and your tendency to humiliate senior leaders. Don’t forget that the party leadership allowed you to demolish top honchos like Keshubhai Patel, Sanjay Joshi, Kashiram Rana and others. But once you move to the national platform, it will be difficult for you to ignore old colleagues. Indira Gandhi could do it because her enemies were discredited and she had nationwide appeal. You are also the most popular leader but your acceptability is still limited.
You are aiming high. But the success of a leader lies in his ability to make himself redundant in his current post. You haven’t shown that tendency. Are you willing to hand over Gujarat’s reins to any leader you have groomed? In your endeavour to make Gujarat India’s most modern state, you forgot to create successors. You have unwittingly let your benefactors promote you as a brand. Please do not allow them to hawk Brand Modi like a deodorant or a freshener, which attracts people only temporarily. Don’t ignore the fact that multinational food chains haven’t been able to find a replacement for the desi dhokhla, vada pao, Tulsi or Haldiram. You are a homegrown brand and its dilution will spell disaster for you alone. In a country that still preaches respect for elders, a person like you can’t be sold like an FMCG. Unfortunately, your over-enthusiastic marketers are not pushing you as an idea because they also feel that its time is yet to come.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla