Narendra Modi as always wants to remain in news. He once again played a master stroke by putting advertisements in Bihar dailies highlighting the growth of Gujarat’s Muslims under his rule. Though Gujarat government had no photographs of progressive Muslims in his state, an ad agency used the photo of Muslims girls from Azamgarh working in a computer class. Thus Modi played his role to woo the minorities of Bihar. This gave some sleepless nights to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. A thorough report about this episode.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is the most sought after BJP leader across the country. Hindu Hriday Samrat to some, a CEO to the corporate world and a rabble-rouser to his opponents. Whatever he does, it always generates a loud impact.
Now as he gets embroiled in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the ad with his NDA ally Bihar’s Chief Minister and JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar, questions are being raised about whether Modi will have any role to play in campaigning in Bihar during the forthcoming assembly elections.
While Modi has maintained a silence over this issue, it seems that he is finally gaining acceptability within and outside the BJP. And advertisements emphasizing a secular appeal for him have appeared in Bihar papers ahead of his visit.
In what could be the biggest sign of this so far is the fact that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who had distanced himself from Modi publicly, has accorded status of state guest to him, indicating that the Gujarat CM has been able to win the support of his Bihar counterpart.
Kumar's decision is seen as a major shift in his thinking as he had earlier distanced himself from Modi for his alleged role in the 2002 communal riots.
Due to Kumar's reservations, Modi was forced to keep away from campaigning in Bihar ahead of 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Even in May this year, Nitish had reportedly said that there was no need to invite Modi for campaigning before Bihar assembly polls in November. Meanwhile, a day before Modi was to reach Patna for the BJP meet, the Gujarat government published full-page advertisements in various English, Hindi and Urdu newspapers in Patna, claiming that Muslims in Gujarat were prosperous and enjoying a better life.
The advertisement states that Muslims in Gujarat enjoy better education, employment opportunities, financial stability, health facilities and infrastructure. It also gives some facts and figures about Muslims' literacy, education, employment, health & economy.
The money for the advertisements was paid by a clutch of businessmen in Surat, mainly Marwaris and Banias, who migrated to Gujarat from Bihar during the regimes of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi. In 1997, when I was working in Bihar, one of Rabri's ministers called them blood-suckers and raked up a huge controversy which only speeded up the exodus. Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar's deputy CM and finance minister who is playing a key role in bringing investments back into Bihar, is from the same community.
But the ads were certainly Narendra Modi's idea. The content was supplied by the Information Department, while the finances were arranged by C R Patil, Surat's BJP MP and ardent Narendra Modi supporter. Gujarat's Modi perhaps knew well that the blitz would hit Nitish but he didn't anticipate the Bihar CM would react in such a manner. The BJP's selection of Patna as a venue for its national executive meeting is obviously with an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections, due in October. But after this incident and looking at the mood of Nitish, it is clear the party may have to keep its star campaigner out again.
Although the advertisement which offended Nitish was ostensibly brought out by a group of Gujarati businessmen based in Bihar, it was okayed by Modi, and the concept and copywriting were done in Gujarat. To be acceptable at the all-India level, Modi knows he has to somehow overcome the stigma of being an untouchable for potential allies. To which end, he has launched a media campaign citing statistics from the Sachar Committee report to establish that his government has a far better record of looking after minority welfare than most other state governments. This, however, is not going to cut much ice among Muslim voters who have not forgiven him for the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. Nitish’s infuriated reaction at being linked with Modi indicates that the Gujarat chief minister will find it difficult to live down his past.
They whisper in Gandhinagar’s corridors that Narendra Modi is an early riser. Those who know him say the first thing he does before starting work is to update himself on all the news online. If this is true then Mr Modi would by now have probably seen Shahla Muzaffar’s telling retort that finding her picture from Azamgarh’s Shibli College plastered over the Gujarat government’s advertisements was a “cruel joke”.
The Gujarat government official fielded to defend the advertisements inadvertently hit upon a cardinal truth of politics when he said the pictures were only meant to be symbolic. Of course they were, but there is a reason why they say that a picture speaks louder than a thousand words. The same picture can always be interpreted in multiple ways but when the picture itself is wrong then even that ambiguity is gone.
In this case, the symbolism is exactly the reverse of what the Gujarat government intended.
If the Gujarat government cannot find a local Muslim face to put on its pictures then it reveals the sleight of hand implicit in its claims. Symbolism and semantics are at the heart of politics. Nobody knows this better than Mr Modi who fashioned his political imagery in 2002 with the rhetorical device of Gujarati asmita and the clever turn of the double meaning political entendre.
We can argue now about technicalities, blame it on a careless mistake, hoist it on the ad agency. Did the Railways too not make a somewhat similar blunder this year with its advertisement showing Delhi outside the Indian map? The fact is that even if these Gujarat advertisements had the right pictures, their message would still have seemed cynical in Bihar and elsewhere.
The reason lies at the heart of the Modi model itself: hard-headed developmentalism tinged with a certain kind of authoritarianism. Modi is a man who gets things done, who delivers spanking new roads and uninterrupted power. But you do not question him. The elephant in the room is always 2002. As he argued a couple of years ago, the spectacular development in the state has seemed to justify a Faustian bargain with “amorality, abridgement of freedom, and collapse of social ethics.” Super-conscious about his legacy, Mr. Modi has spent the last eight years largely keeping aloof from the obvious questions about Muslims and 2002. The only exception was his counter-rhetoric on Sohrabuddin in the 2007 election and his assertions that the development of 5 and a half crore Gujaratis includes everyone.
In yet another setback to Narendra Modi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has returned the Kosi flood relief fund Modi government claimed to have allotted to the state in 2008.
The move came only days after Kumar, who heads the NDA government in the state, was shown holding hands with Modi in advertisements that were splashed in Bihar newspapers on the eve of BJP's national executive meet in Patna on June 12 and 13.
CM secretariat sources confirmed that a cheque, signed by Chanchal, secretary to the CM and in-charge of the CM Relief Fund, had been sent to Ahmedabad by speed post. "The exact amount is not known, but it must be more than Rs 5 crore with interest," a source said.
Responding immediately to the controversial ad, Nitish Kumar had also cancelled the dinner he was to host for the BJP national executive members on June 12. A section of state BJP leaders had angrily reacted to the "humiliation" and urged the leadership to sever ties with the JD (U).
The public display of affection by Nitish to Modi may well damage the image of the former who does not want to lose Muslim vote bank in Bihar. Modi is known as the ‘Maut Ka Saudagar’ for his alleged role in riots against Muslims in Gujarat.
The thing about Modi and India’s Muslims is that there has never been a reconciliatory public gesture. Without such a gesture, to much of liberal India, quoting the Sachar committee’s figures would always seem a bit facetious, given that Gujarat is already one of India’s most industrialised and urbanised states.
The irony is that these advertisements may just have been the start of the first such outreach to redefine Brand Modi, to make him more acceptable to the BJP’s allies.
The backfire has been spectacular. Nitish Kumar’s simultaneous threat to take legal action for another advertisement showing him hand-in-hand with Modi is unprecedented. If a trusted ally of more than a decade and a half cannot stand to be in the same picture frame then it starkly demonstrates the limitations of Brand Modi outside Gujarat.
Nitish Kumar, too, knows the meanings of symbolism and he has dramatised the moment for his own purposes. He had no qualms in sitting with Mr Modi on an election dais in Ludhiana last year, but the permutations of Bihar are different. He has fallen out with his own party president over the Women’s Reservation Bill, he is facing bhumihar dissension from his party ranks and the forward mobilisation that propelled him to power last time may be in danger. At such a time, what better way to shore up the Muslim vote in Bihar than to court the TV cameras and attack Mr Modi? And with Rahul Gandhi praising his leadership last year, the tea leaves appear to be moving.
At a time when the BJP is looking for a new direction, Mr Modi remains one of the few real mass leaders among its Gen Next but this latest spat shows that he remains a polarising figure outside Gujarat. It would need more than advertisements to change that.
His ability to general political heat are unparalleled within the BJP, but ironically, Modi has never been allowed to campaign in Bihar either during the assembly elections or last year’s Lok Sabha elections.
With CM Nitish Kumar wooing the minorities in Bihar aggressively, Narendra Modi's involvement in Bihar unit of his party has always been a tricky subject, often to party's own Muslim candidates.
Ironically, the mood within the BJP now is to bring Narendra Modi in Bihar to campaign ahead of the assembly elections only to prove a point to its long-term ally – the JD (U). However, the elections are still a few months away. And in the end, it will always be cold political logic which will prevail over any momentary heartburn.
By Abdul Hafiz Lakhani