The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Overriding theme of a unique election

Ahmedabad, Dec. 11: An opinion poll placed him ahead of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in popularity. Ticket distribution or poll strategy, he managed to have his way. Even his mentor L.K. Advani was forced to play second fiddle.

Love him or hate him, Narendra Modi is the overriding theme in an Assembly election quite unlike any the country has witnessed so far. Because, if there is one thing the BJP and its opponents agree on, it is that the outcome of the Gujarat polls will reshape the country’s future polity.

Despite the BJP’s assertions, most party members in the state said Modi carried the campaign on his shoulders because he was the only one who attracted crowds at any time, day or night. The others, including proven “star” canvassers like Uma Bharti, Sushma Swaraj and Advani, did not click to the same extent.

Little wonder then, in the final round, he seemed to have had his way in insisting on Godhra being the main focus despite the Election Commission’s directives. There was not a whimper of protest from the leaders and even Modi’s perceived adversary, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, started talking of the train carnage in his speeches.

BJP strategists and observers listed several reasons why Modi was pivotal to the elections. According to them, had Godhra and what followed thereafter not happened, the BJP would have got wiped out with a string of cooperative bank scams, the stock market bust-up and drought, electricity and water adding to the never-ending list of minuses.

“Modi succeeded in using the violence politically to subsume the anti-incumbency sentiment and the caste divisions the Congress planned to exploit. Everybody became a Hindu overnight and he managed to put the BJP agenda on top. Even the Congress was compelled to speak the Hindutva idiom and act like the BJP’s B-team,” said a party strategist.

Modi, the strategists felt, was the first and, so far, the most “credible” leader in Gujarat to articulate the Sangh’s Hindutva agenda. His predecessors like Patel and Suresh Mehta were seen as either “unfocused” or “soft”.

With his Hindutva credentials intact, the BJP felt that Modi would be the only leader to command the respect of Sangh affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal whose cadre form its foot soldiers in an election. The calculation worked because, for the first time, the VHP openly said it was working on the BJP’s behalf.

According to a party functionary, Modi had “enthralled” two major vote banks among Hindus — the youths and women. “He has projected a strong man, macho image and has struck a chord in both these groups,” he said. So, while the older male votes could get divided on caste lines, the BJP’s reading was that women and young people would vote as a block for Modi.

The anti-Modi campaign did its bit, too. “He is the first chief minister to be mentioned in Parliament and the international press,” former RSS pracharak Chimanbhai Patel said. “That has caught the young generation’s eye.”

Modi’s well-publicised love for high-tech gadgets was also noticed by the 18-plus, who said the images of the chief minister with a cellphone in each hand or engrossed in the Net was in sync with their idea of what a 21st century leader should be.

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