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Poll dharma: In Lucknow, chant Atal
Modi once a target, now a disciple

March 2: Narendra Modi today claimed he had “learnt a lot” from a man who had once publicly lectured him on raj dharma (impartial governance) and twice sought to sack him as chief minister.

Speaking in a city that sent Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Parliament from 1991 till 2009, Modi congratulated Lucknovites for their “strong bond” with the former Prime Minister and seemed to claim the legacy of a man he always seemed to be at odds with.

“Whenever I come here, I am reminded of Vajpayee. I have learnt a lot from his leadership ability. I am inspired by his vision of development,” the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate said.

Yet, among political opponents as well as former BJP allies, Vajpayee and Modi are more often than not cited in contrast — the “moderate face of the BJP” held up against the riot-tainted Hindutva hawk.

Just three days ago, Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla had joined the Congress and fired salvos at Modi, saying Indians would never vote for a man who had failed to do his duty both as husband and administrator.

Shukla, a former BJP vice-president, also spoke of the party’s post-Vajpayee “decline” and accused “one faction” of capturing the party.

A BJP source attributed Modi’s comments today to the political goodwill Vajpayee still enjoys in Lucknow: “Had he sounded less than generous on Vajpayee, the party’s upper-caste voters might have perceived it as a slight.”

There has also been speculation about the Gujarat chief minister contesting the Lok Sabha polls from Lucknow.

“The road to Delhi passes through Lucknow,” Modi said, quoting one of Vajpayee’s favourite aphorisms, as the veteran beamed from a large poster behind him.

Choppy ties

When the BJP decided to replace Keshubhai Patel as Gujarat chief minister after the 2001 earthquake, Vajpayee’s first two choices had been Kashiram Rana and Suresh Mehta. He eventually appointed Modi on Patel’s advice after a longer than usual delay.

When Vajpayee announced the news, he jokingly told Modi he was gaining too much weight eating Delhi’s Punjabi food and should return to Gandhinagar and stick to spartan Gujarati khichdi.

When the then Prime Minister visited Ahmedabad in April the following year, a month after the riots, he subtly castigated Modi at a joint news conference.

“A ruler should follow raj dharma. He should not differentiate between his subjects on the basis of caste or religion,” Vajpayee said, adding: “I am sure Narendrabhai is doing so.”

But as NDA allies such as the Telugu Desam pressed for a stronger gesture of accountability for the violence, word came from the Prime Minister’s Office that Modi would be replaced by Patel.

However, when Vajpayee arrived in Goa for the BJP national executive that April, he realised he was isolated. Even his friends and loyalists like Murli Manohar Joshi and Pramod Mahajan stressed that Modi must continue, for the Sangh wanted him to.

A charade was played out: Modi offered to step down at the meeting but was met with a chorus of dissuasion.

Round II of their tussle took place in June 2004 after the NDA had been voted out. In a TV interview, Vajpayee said the Gujarat riots had had a “negative” impact on the BJP’s prospects.

He hinted that the issue of removing Modi was “still open” and would be discussed at the national executive, scheduled a few days on in Mumbai.

At the conclave, Vajpayee fired from the shoulders of Patel, who accused Modi of being autocratic and inaccessible. But the members again overwhelmingly backed Modi.

Verse venture

Like Vajpayee often used to, Modi today ended his speech with a poem that he said was “gifted” to him.

Saugandh mujhe is mitti ki/ Main desh nahi mitne doonga/ Main desh nahi tootne doonga (I swear by this soil that I won’t let this country break or be destroyed),” it went.

Vajpayee’s poetic forays at rallies used to reflect his mood and the political situation of the day.

After his government lost a trust vote in the summer of 1999, local BJP leader Dinesh Trivedi said, Vajpayee told a rally: “Swayang ko doosre ki drishti se main dekh pata hoon/ Na main chup hoon na gata hoon (I can see myself through the eyes of others; I am neither silent nor singing).”

Lalji Tandon, Vajpayee loyalist and sitting Lucknow MP, recalled another poem that the former Prime Minister had recited after winning the autumn 1999 elections.

Haar nahin manunga/ Raar nahin thanunga/ Kal ke kapal pe likhta mitata hoon/ Geet naya gata hoon (I shan’t accept defeat, I shan’t declare a fight, I keep writing and erasing on the brow of time, I keep singing a new song),” it went.

Party spokesperson Vijay Bahadur Pathak recalled that an ailing Vajpayee had addressed his last rally in Lucknow on April 25, 2007, ahead of the Assembly elections.

At another rally a year earlier, he had asked Lucknovites to look for a house for him “somewhere in Bakshi Ka Talab, where I can spend the rest of my life with you”.

Wooing Muslims

Modi also made what seemed to be his most direct attempt yet on the campaign trail to woo Muslims.

“We believe in economic development while you play the politics of votes, letting Muslims languish in poverty,” he said in a jibe at the state’s Samajwadi Party government.

Mulayam Singh Yadav had earlier ridiculed Modi, saying: “You first carry out a massacre of Muslims and then apologise. You feel they (Muslims) are fools?”

The reference was to BJP president Rajnath Singh’s offer of an apology to Muslims for any “mistakes” the party may have made.

Modi said Uttar Pradesh had witnessed 150 riots in the past one year while Gujarat had seen none in 10 years.