| Vajpayee and Modi at an election rally in Ahmedabad. (AFP)
Whether the party wins or loses the battle for Gujarat, there is little doubt on one point. The star of the show is Narendra Modi. For the first time since the birth of the BJP, it has found in its ranks a person who combines three roles of regional satrap, machine politician and ideologue.
The Prime Minister’s speeches may strike a different tone, reaching for the middle ground and playing on the positive issues of development and progress. But for the new Sardar of the BJP in Gujarat, the political lexicon is centred on Godhra and its aftermath.
It is not only a question of the way in which he has dominated much of the campaign. His Gujarat Gaurav Rath Yatra has covered 160 of 182 constituencies, and it is his image that is prominent on every poster.
The party has yielded place to the man. For the first time, the figure on the poster is neither Advani nor Atal.
There is an uncanny similarity between the way A.B. Vajpayee was overshadowed by an assertive L.K. Advani in the late eighties and the current denouement in the same organisation. But the latter was always cautious with words.
He never named a minority community, training fire on “pseudo-secularists”. It was minorityism and not the minorities that was to blame, he always claimed.
Modi holds back no punches. No serving chief minister of any party has ever mixed recrimination and propaganda quite the way he does. The remark on the growth of population of Muslims was never convincingly denied. Godhra’s atrocity continues to be used as an excuse for riot and mayhem.
In the process, the issue worth pondering over is whether this marks the start of a new era for the party. Much hinges on how it does in the polls. Winning will not be enough for the Modi line to prevail. It will be essential to sweep the state. A saffron version of the three-fourths majority the KHAM alliance gave Madhavsinh Solanki’s Congress in 1985. Or, to set the peg lower, the two-thirds majority of the sort Keshubhai delivered on two successive occasions.
A huge victory will not end Vajpayee’s supremacy in government or Advani’s grip on the party. But it will spell something far more significant in a cadre-based, ideologically-aligned Sangh parivar. It will introduce at the pan-Indian level a strong regional player, who will try to set the agenda for the party and then the nation.
Thus far, there has been no space for a third leader at the helm. Murli Manohar Joshi was eased out after a term; the former Rajmata of Gwalior was more of a symbolic leader than a dominating presence in the party.
Modi is a very different kind of figure. His quarter century in the RSS was followed by a stint in the central party office. Though he cut his teeth in the anti-Congress Nav Nirman movement and the struggle against the Emergency, it is the idiom of minority versus majority that sustains him. He remains what he was at the start: an all or nothing man.
In October 2001, few paid attention to his comment that this would be a “one-day match, not a Test match”. Now he ranks first in the pantheon of the Sangh parivar. The campaign in Gujarat has shown a defiance of other players that is new for the BJP. The denial of a ticket to Haren Pandya is the clearest sign of how Modi is making the state his fief.
There are two barriers. One is the mistrust among a large section of the central leadership of the BJP. Nowhere was this more evident than in Vajpayee’s speech at Vadodara, where he said he was an advocate whose words did not even merit a hearing from his client. If Modi does not deliver, or if he stumbles, he will find his adversaries moving very fast.
The second problem lies within Gujarat. Business matters more than politics, the saffron party presenting itself as a stabilising force. Despite the Dariapur riots and the Dangs violence, there was nothing to equal the ferocity of the massacres that followed after Godhra. It is unclear if even Modi can sustain himself and his politics on an incessant, single-point campaign.
Advani and Vajpayee may be over the hill, but it’s quite a hill they have climbed. The next few days will show whether the man from Maninagar has peaked or whether there is more to follow.