Narendra Modi addresses supporters through a 3D video link in Ahmedabad on Friday. (PTI)
Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje may be excused for feeling slighted as a Modi “wave” blows her state off its feet.
Many people here claim they voted the Congress out four months ago because of their support for Modi and not because of Raje or the BJP. Indeed, Ashok Gehlot still seems to enjoy greater goodwill than Raje among large sections of the people.
Be it a worker at India’s most famous marble market in Kishangarh or a trader at the Pink City’s Jauhari Bazar, everybody appears convinced of Modi’s credentials as a development messiah.
Perhaps the biggest irony of this election is that exactly those traits exhibited by Modi that the Congress and many “secular liberals” had thought would become the BJP’s biggest liabilities seem to have turned into its main strengths.
The ordinary voter appears to have largely ignored the riot charges against him and been thrilled to bits by what many among the intelligentsia see as a crudeness in his language.
Govind, who works for a caterer in Jodhpur and was visiting Jaipur on business, summed up the mood: “Zuban mein dum hai; bol ke raha diya sabko (There’s verve in his speech; he’s clobbered all with his talk).”
He rued: “I missed the Barmer rally where he spoke of Dhoom:3. His taunts are devastating.”
Govind giggled as he recalled Modi’s “shehzade” (prince) jibes at Rahul and claimed that Rajasthan was “intoxicated” with the BJP prime ministerial candidate. He dismissed Raje as “elitist, arrogant and anti-poor”.
Modi had accused Rahul of doing Dhoom stunts on a “stolen bike” sometime ago in Rajasthan.
“Dhoom:3 mein baap-bete ka khel chalta tha. Desh mein maa-bete ka khel chalta hai. Dhoom:2 toh ho gaya; ab Dhoom:3 nahin hoga (Dhoom:3 was about a father and his son at play. Now the country is witnessing a mother-and-son game. Dhoom:2 is over; now there will be no Dhoom:3),” the Gujarat chief minister said.
What he seemed to be saying was that UPA II would not be followed by a UPA III. It’s this kind of vitriol and scorn that increasingly appears to be Modi’s biggest appeal among a large section of voters.
Jaipur taxi driver Babulal Saini, told that some of the claims associated with the “Gujarat model” have been labelled “tall”, took refuge in what seems to have become a popular refrain. “He talks well and comes out as a strong, fearless man. That's what India needs.”
Asked about the riot taint and “pro-rich” charge against Modi, Saini paradoxically cited Manmohan Singh to defend the BJP prime ministerial candidate.
“One can say anything to malign a person,” he retorted. “Didn’t the BJP say all kinds of things about Manmohan Singh? But he remains a good man in the eyes of the people.”
Yet it’s difficult to find too many people in Rajasthan’s towns and villages who accept that the Manmohan government had achieved a lot in the social sector and education.
On the Jaipur-Ajmer Expressway near Kishangarh, a group of youngsters fiercely defended Modi’s credentials while running down Manmohan.
Told that the Congress-led government had set up a central university in Rajasthan, one of them said with a dismissive air: “The private sector keeps setting up these.”
Rajasthan Central University is located at Bandarsindri, a few kilometres from the site of this conversation. It was set up by the Manmohan government in 2010. The youngsters who thought it was a private venture described the Birla International School on the same expressway as “sarkari” (government-run).
Rural India may be replete with signs of the changing times — a cure for premature ejaculation and incense sticks advertised on the same wall, a “Silver Spoon” restaurant rubbing shoulders with a dhaba — but the arguments in Modi’s favour reflect an old mindset.
At a village in Ajmer district, one among a group of Jats said: “The Congress is a party of Muslims: all its welfare schemes are for them. Modi will set things right.”
The oldest-looking among the villagers added: “The issue is not bijli-paani (electricity and water); the issue is Pakistani. Rajasthan suffers a lot because of infiltrators.”
Communal violence is rare in Rajasthan, which shares a border with Pakistan, although sporadic incidents have been reported in the past two years.
Dharmendra Singh Choudhary, a former chief of Ajmer’s bar association, confessed himself baffled why, “if you talk to 50 people in the market, 40 will tell you Modi should be Prime Minister”.
“There’s no concern for issues; it’s all about Modi. This is inexplicable. The youths have turned Modi bhakts,” he said.
“The Congress candidate for the Assembly elections here was a good man who had lost the previous election by 600 votes. We all thought he would win comfortably this time. But he lost by 21,000 votes. We later realised that the Modi wave had already begun.”
At the Ajmer district and sessions court, senior lawyer Ravidas Sharma tried to explain the Modi phenomenon.
“After a long time, a section of society has seen in him a leader who can bring complete Hindu dominance on the body politic, while another frustrated section has been told that he would solve their problems. The Gujarat model was a ploy to combine the dissatisfied secular Hindus with the communal,” Sharma said.
“It’s a momentary impulse. Most of these poor voters have no independent thinking, no agenda, no commitment. We have the examples of the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) in Assam and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. Modi will be as ephemeral as them.”
He added: “It’s unfortunate that the Modi wave has acquired a large dimension in Rajasthan where religious and caste factors rarely became the guiding force in elections.”
Another lawyer, Sunil Kaushik, said the perception that Modi was a strong leader — and the absence of attractive alternatives in the Congress or among Modi’s BJP peers — had played the biggest role in shaping this electoral battle.
“He grabbed that space and established himself as the only person who can lead effectively. There’s no point exposing his drawbacks without projecting an alternative leader. Rahul is not the alternative people are looking for.”
Even Saini, the taxi driver, had echoed this sentiment in different words. He had suggested that Rahul was a good man but nobody listened to him in the “corrupt” Congress while the “strong Modi” had already rendered the other BJP leaders helpless and his writ alone was likely to run in the party.
It’s exactly this that Rahul and his supporters had thought would boomerang on Modi and yet seems to be working the best for him.
Rajasthan votes on April 17 and 24