Sunday, December 30, 2007

Modi, Gujarat's lion heart!

Modi, Gujarat's lion heart
Narendra Modi meets a victim of post-Godhra violence
Not many years ago, the tree-lined road from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar passed through vast stretches of fields and bush, the air redolent with the fragrance of wild flowers. It's no longer so. The traffic has increased and on both sides of the road huge information technology centres have come up, their gleaming chrome and glass structures reflecting the upbeat mood in the State. I am told land on either side of the road is now prized property with entrepreneurs tripping over each other to get a slice before all of it is gone.
Gandhinagar is a somnolent town, a sprawling colony, really, of squat apartment buildings, red brick bungalows and broad avenues with bright yellow flowers tumbling all over the pavements. There's no mad traffic, no jaywalkers and no piles of festering garbage. Most remarkably, there are no plastic bags -- that ubiquitous symbol of urban decay across the country -- littering the streets, the pavements, the parks and the vacant plots. Gandhinagar, largely inhabited by Ministers and bureaucrats, is stunningly neat and tidy and vastly different from crowded Ahmedabad. We head for the Chief Minister's residence.
The security arrangements are elaborate. As the car enters the Chief Minister's residence, I catch a brief glimpse of the nameplate. It's in Devnagari script and says, in large silver letters, Narendra Modi. In Gujarat (as also in the rest of the country) that's introduction enough. The house and the garden bear witness to Mr Modi's Spartan lifestyle. Frugality is writ large on the furniture, the peeling paint on the walls and in the sparsely furnished, severely austere office. It's Saturday, the day before results of the Assembly election are to be announced.
Mr Modi, of course, is relaxed. "It won't be less than 120. It could be more than that," he tells me. We talk about politics, the campaign, his famous proxy spat with Soniaben, and his plans for Gujarat. This is a different Narendra Modi, one whom I got to know well during the time he was exiled to Delhi, a victim of Gujarat's eternal politics of dissent and factionalism.
It was 1996. Mr Shankersinh Vaghela had almost managed to topple Keshubhai Patel's Government with the help of 'dissidents' whom he had taken for an extended holiday to Khajuraho. The loyalists immediately branded them as 'Khajurias'. Mr Vaghela's men responded by labelling the loyalists 'Hajurias'. The revolt was quelled by making Mr Suresh Mehta the Chief Minister; he has since turned a dissident and walked out of the party. Mr Modi was packed off to Delhi.
On a lazy afternoon at 11 Ashoka Road, I asked Mr Modi whether he was upset over the way events had unfolded despite being a 'Hajuria'. He cackled and then said, "You see, there's a third category, that of 'Majurias'. I belong to this category." What he meant was that so long he had an assignment, he was happy doing whatever the party asked him to do. And he did it with full gusto.
It's the same spirit that drives him as Chief Minister of Gujarat. "I am still a 'Majuria'," he says as I get up to leave, and hugs me warmly. At no point during our conversation does he sound cynical. His optimism is infectious.
The celebrations on Sunday outside the BJP office in Ahmedabad and the genuinely joyous welcome accorded to Mr Modi by a mammoth crowd cramming the narrow street when he arrived after the final results had been declared reminded me of cinematic representations of Caesar's triumphant return to Rome after a victorious campaign. As I wrote in my despatch that appeared in this newspaper, thousands of men, women and children were delirious with joy.
This was vastly different from the racket created by hired crowds that we usually get to see. Mr Modi's popularity is absolutely stunning. You have to see it to believe it. Television footage and newspaper reports do not do him justice. Images and words cannot capture the mass adulation he commands. Every word, every gesture, every pause and every flick of the finger fetches a roaring response. He strides the State's political stage as a giant, a man much larger and bigger than what he is in real life. The Gujarati idiom, 'Chhappan ni Chhati', which means lion-heart and literally translates into "56-inch chest", aptly describes Mr Modi's public persona.
The many myths surrounding him, myths that have become a part of Gujarat's folklore, bolster his mass appeal. Chatting with friends in the evening, I learned various things about Mr Modi. He doesn't sleep. How do they know? A raja who is mindful of his praja's welfare and follows raj dharma stays awake all the time. Mr Modi follows raj dharma, he is an ideal raja who thinks of nothing but his praja's welfare. So, he is awake all the time. Another version has it that Mr Modi gets up at 3 am in the morning and starts working.
A friend's wife breathlessly informs me that Mr Modi, a bachelor, is a vegetarian (which he is), he practices yoga (which he probably does) and he has no family (yes, he lives alone). What more can you ask for? According to an extended version of this revealing insight, Mr Modi's mother sits with the crowds at his rallies and he does not even acknowledge her presence. A second version adds details about how he has scrupulously avoided helping his siblings despite holding such a high office. A third version mentions that at Mr Modi's ancestral home, his folks use moulded plastic furniture. The waiter at the hotel restaurant told me that the ground shakes when Mr Modi walks, so he walks slowly. This is not just adulation, but veneration. There's nothing false about it; it is genuine love and affection bordering on unquestioning adoration. Few politicians, if any at all, can claim as much. This can only make Mr Modi's task that much tougher.
I am personally curious about who was manipulating the satta bazaar which went on a roller-coaster ride during the last 72 hours before the results were declared. In the early stages of the campaign, the odds were heavily stacked against the Congress and most people were putting their money on the BJP. After exit polls suggested the Congress was on a comeback trail following the first round of voting, the odds were evenly balanced. The second round of exit polls, which gave Mr Modi a narrow victory margin, saw the odds tilting against the BJP. In the last 72 hours, there was heavy betting with punters putting their money on a Congress win. Newspaper estimates suggest that the bets amounted to Rs 2,400-crore. In the event, those who placed their money on the Congress lost heavily. Some people, though, have made a killing.

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