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Tasks: mend image and build bridges

New Delhi, Dec. 24: Narendra Modi is now wearing the crown of the biggest mass leader in the BJP but the dominant view in the party is that he would need a lot of time and some image makeover to establish himself as a national leader.

Party leaders felt that the ground realities outside Gujarat and the existing equations within the Sangh parivar did not create a favourable climate for Modi’s national ambitions.

Sources close to the Sangh were also at pains to point out that Gujarat provided Modi with an “ideal platform” and he delivered with efficacy. Gujarat is almost free from extreme poverty, crime syndicates, caste menace and multi-party presence, they pointed out, adding that the state has a strong BJP organisation.

“Modi’s credit lies in successfully exploiting these conditions, which won’t be available elsewhere,” a senior BJP leader said.

“Some cold facts help us analyse the situation in totality. We cannot sell the development agenda in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar or Chhattisgarh like we could in Gujarat. The caste factor is overriding in these states and Mayavati’s inclusive politics is posing new dangers to the mainstream parties.

“The presence of regional forces makes politics far more complex in these states. More important, the secular-communal discourse has an entirely different fabric in these states,” he said.

Modi’s admirers also conceded that Gujarat formula could not be replicated elsewhere. They understand that the cocktail of Gujarati pride, development and Hindutva is a unique combination that is situation- and state-specific.

They said Modi would like to change his image before leaving his “launch pad” for a national role. Another leader said: “I bet Modi will change now; he will be more party-friendly, modest and tolerant. He will send out a message that he believes in taking people together, values consensus-building and has a wider vision.”

Modi also has to build bridges within the Sangh. It is almost inconceivable that he can become party president without the RSS’s backing.

Both Modi and Advani prefer freedom from the RSS in the micro-management of the party while Rajnath Singh is more than willing to toe the line from Nagpur, where the BJP parent has its headquarters.

The BJP allies, too, might feel uncomfortable under Modi’s control; Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar had disfavoured Modi’s campaigning in Bihar not long ago.

Another major problem the BJP leadership will face is its high stakes in the Hindi heartland. After Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s virtual exit from active politics, the party’s northern leadership is represented by Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh.

Joshi is already marginalised and will be further pushed aside after Advani’s ascent. Sushma has the ability to connect with cadres and has some mass appeal. Rajnath lacks charisma but he is among the few upper caste leaders in whom the party has invested heavily. Arun Jaitley’s standing as a behind-the-scenes strategist has gone up sharply but few feel he can become the face of the party.

Some BJP leaders feel it would not be wise to shift the entire leadership structure from the heartland to the west. Advani is also from Gujarat, which will work to Modi’s disadvantage. Advani had to work for decades to get nationwide acceptability and Modi, too, will have to go through the grind.

The next electoral battle is in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh and the party knows it will have to come up with an entirely different strategy.

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