Did you know that Jhumri Tilaiya in Jharkhand was once famous for sending the highest number of song requests to All India Radio?
Or that repairing the Imphal-Jiribam highway can lessen Manipur’s burden if there’s an economic blockade in Nagaland?
Narendra Modi, chief minister of faraway Gujarat, does know and, at his recent election rallies in Jharkhand and Manipur, made it a point to let voters know that he does.
During his campaign travels across the country, the BJP mascot has not just been showing a penchant for donning local headgear or slipping into local attire, such as the veshti he wore while meeting actor Rajinikanth in Chennai.
He is also dressing up his speeches with references to local issues, local heroes and local sentiments to establish a quick connect with his audiences. Not all references went unchallenged, though, and on one occasion in Jammu, Modi took liberties with facts (see chart). But the slip-ups have been less numerous than the “historical blunders” that marked some of Modi’s pre-campaign speeches.
The strategy seemed to have an impact in Coimbatore last week when Modi devoted a lot of time to describing how industries in Coimbatore and neighbouring Tiruppur had suffered because of power cuts.
“If I can make Gujarat power-surplus, why not Tamil Nadu? Medium and small-scale enterprises in Gujarat have grown by 85 per cent against the national average of 16 per cent because of uninterrupted power,” he said.
“You give me the next five years and I will ensure that the golden period between 18 and 28 years of a person’s life is not wasted by lack of employment.”
D. Suresh, 26, who attended the rally, said: “Modi knew that many small and medium industries had closed in Coimbatore and Tiruppur because of the power crisis. I looked after electrical maintenance in a foundry but it shut down. Now I drive an auto-rickshaw.”
Did Modi inspire him? “Definitely. My cousin works in Baroda and from what he says he seems to be living in another country,” Suresh said.
Research the key
The trend began last year when Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate and prepared to address his first meeting in Varanasi. The city’s BJP representatives asked that he focus on local matters and not just lambast the Centre.
From a list of issues they had supplied, Modi picked the plight of the silk sari industry because it affected both Hindu and Muslim workers.
That one-off effort has now been institutionalised. Behind Modi’s easy recall in Guwahati of the delayed Bharat Ratna for Assam’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi, and his tributes to freedom fighter Veera Surendra Sai in Odisha’s Sambalpur, lay the meticulous research of a large team of young managers and techies.
Before Modi travelled to campaign in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh’s impoverished Bundelkhand, his team informed him that many of the migrants in Gujarat came from this region. They travelled to Gujarat to work whenever farming hit a rough spell in Bundelkhand.
Modi promised that from now on, migrants from Bundelkhand could return home from Gujarat to harvest their crops on paid leave.
How Modi showcased his familiarity with local issues on the campaign trail in 10 states and the risks that parachuted knowledge carries
For Modi’s team, selecting the themes, creating the content and writing the speeches is only half the job done. Often, Modi may detect a gap or demand additional details at the last minute, midway through his journey to the rally venue, and the team would have just minutes to get in touch with local BJP officials, collect the info and get back to their leader.
Some of the research was reflected in Modi’s speech in Koderma, Jharkhand, on April 2 when he said there was a time when “sunrays fell on Koderma’s mica and shone”, making it look as though “the sun had come visiting”.
He then contrasted it with the rude reality of the present: “Now people forage for mica pieces from the mines to earn a pittance.”
Poetry about sunrays and mica apart, most of Modi’s speeches focus on livelihood matters.
At a pre-election rally on February 18 in Davangere in north Karnataka, he promised to rejuvenate the textile production centre with his “Five F Formula” of “Farm to fibre, fibre to fabric, fabric to fashion and fashion to foreign (exports).”
In Jammu, it was about exporting the Himalayan medicinal herbs to rival China; in Kerala’s Kasargode, about the rights abuses faced in the Gulf by its large migrant population.
Modi has been showcasing his love of the local in another way too. As an advocate of decentralisation, he has been saying that if he comes to power, he would hold bilateral meetings in various cities rather than just in Delhi as is the practice now.
If Modi struggled with his veshti in Chennai on April 13, he didn’t stumble even once as he held forth on local issues at the six rallies he held across Tamil Nadu on April 16 and 17.
At Krishnagiri, groaning under a perennial water problem because of high fluorine content, he offered river inter-linking as the solution.
“In Gujarat we have only two rivers — Tapti and Narmada — but by linking the Narmada with canals and huge pipes we can take water even to Kutch, which has a similar problem like Krishnagiri,” he said.
Salem was treated to the nugget that stainless steel made at the local plant was a global brand that had been used in famous structures such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
“When such is India’s capability, we are sending iron ore to China and importing steel from there,” he said, seeking to blend local pride, nationalist sentiments and a global outlook.
At Ramanathapuram, where Rameswaram is located, Modi accused the Centre and the state government of blaming each other whenever the Lankan navy arrested Tamil fishermen.
“A strong government will be able to take up your issue more effectively with Sri Lanka,” he declared.
He saluted local hero A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s contribution to the country and cited how Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made him President.
“Dr Kalam’s first posting was in Ahmedabad and he has been close to Gujarat and me,” Modi claimed, conveniently forgetting that his government had opposed Kalam’s visit to Gujarat after the 2002 riots.
At Kanyakumari, Modi played host to local Tamil writer Joe D’Cruz, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel on the lives of fishermen.
After D’Cruz praised Modi as the ideal choice for Prime Minister, a Delhi-based publisher had dropped its plan to translate his award-winning novel Korkai into English. Unfazed, D’Cruz shared the stage with Modi to reaffirm his support.
Criss-crossing the country, Modi is carrying out the easier task of talking the local talk but how and whether he will be able to walk the talk is a question that has not been answered.