One ignores the Narendra Modi reality at the cost of being delusional, says Shreekant Sambrani
My elementary school history books told me that in the seventeenth century Aurangzeb campaign against the Marathas, Mughal
horses would not drink from the streams as they saw
reflections of guerrilla warriors in the water.
Functionaries and leaders of the Congress party
have been in a similar fix, seeing everywhere the larg-
er-than-life image of Narendra Modi, the Gujarat
chief minister, even before he was appointed to head
the Bharatiya Janata Party poll efforts next year. They
are now joined by a growing number of critics in the
media, both printed and electronic, and in English as
well as Indian languages, who have relentlessly held
forth on the Modi phenomenon.
Now their ranks are joined by a most unlikely per-
sonage: The Bhishma Pitamah of the BJP, Lal
Krishna Advani. He went public with his disapproval
of his party’s decision and unburdened his conscience
regarding Modi, without naming him.
That popular appellation is quite inopportune.
Bhishma’s defining traits were his foreswearing the
crown and his steadfast adherence to that resolve
under all conditions. Mr Advani has foresworn noth-
ing. Advancing years alone are not enough to bestow
the mantle of the Mahabharata patriarch, any more
than being the home minister making one the new
The Modi critique industry is one among the few
growth stories in this age of slow-down. Not too long
ago, say about the beginning of last year, this writer
was among the handful of commentators on Modi.
Then came Modi’s Sadbhavana fasts September 2011
onwards, supposedly aimed at bolstering communal
harmony in Gujarat. They caused a mushroom growth of
interest in Modi.
His winning the state elections last December spawned a
virtual army of commentators. Until the cricket sleaze hit
the media two weeks ago, one could count on about half a
dozen opinion pieces and two or three panel discussions on
Modi every week. It is another matter altogether that few of
these had anything to say that was not said a dozen or more
That unfortunately has not changed even after the
momentous events of the days preceding and surrounding
the BJP national executive meet in Goa. We have been
treated nightly to the regurgitation of the same litany: The
BJP’s internal fissures, Modi’s divisive influence and grave
doubts about the possible electoral outcomes of all these
moves and countermoves.
It is entirely understandable that various party
spokespersons would follow their respective lines. But the
many learned observers have, to a person, failed to grasp
that Indian politics and elections have now reached a point
Modi’s primacy in his party is now assured, despite the
storm caused by Advani’s resignation. Its prompt and
expected withdrawal showed the storm was really in a
teacup. Similarly, the upping of the ante by Bihar Chief
Minister Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal-United through
the threat of quitting the National Democratic Alliance
probably causes more worries outside the BJP than within.
To say this is not necessarily an endorsement of the BJP or
Modi (readers of this newspaper would be familiar with my
criticisms of their politics in these pages).
The BJP has, as of June 2013, reached its Indira Gandhi
moment, following a similar pattern as the Congress party
had. This statement would shock supporters of both the
BJP and the Congress party. But it needs to be understood
meeting earlier this month. The second generation of
leaders is again not unlike its counterparts in other par-
ties, notably the Congress. The RSS may call the shots,
but is mostly behind the scenes and the BJP conclaves
appear and act no different from those of the Congress.
Narendra Modi has now emerged as the most popular
and visible BJP leader, bar none. Every poll has Modi at
pole position in the national sweepstakes at this stage.
His performance is even better when pitted individually
against his competitors. This may not be a cause for cel-
ebration, but one ignores the reality at the cost of being
His rise is strikingly similar to that of Indira Gandhi,
the foremost leader of the second generation of the
Congress party in independent India. They both began
hesitantly, being thrust into office without any experi-
ence in the government. They had their godparents
rooting for them in the early stages of their career, K
Kamaraj and others for Indira Gandhi and Advani and
others for Modi.
Quickly, they learned that they could appeal to the
people directly. Just as quickly, they became larger than
their respective parties and no longer needed their erst-
while mentors. Indira Gandhi lost no time in consign-
ing the so-called Congress Syndicate to the dustbin of
history, as depicted in a memorable cartoon by R K
Laxman. Modi has now in effect done the same with
The Congress party split several times, but that posed
no threat to Indira Gandhi, because of her popularity
with the masses and her own unshakable faith in her
destiny. The rout of 1977 after the Emergency caused
her star to eclipse for the next two-and-a-half years, but
she returned, riding a fresh wave of popular support.
The political reality today is that 180 is the new majority
in Lok Sabha. Any party with that strength will attract
enough post-election support to form the government. And
the BJP realizes that there is none within its present rank
of leaders who can take it there barring Narendra Modi.
Even though it makes enough worried noises about saving the National Democratic Alliance and taking every one
along, it realizes if it does not cross that Rubicon, the NDA
would be an empty shell offering no solace whatsoever.
If the price of aspiring to it is the loss of an ally such as
Nitish Kumar (increasingly suspect anyway), so be it.
It is taking a gamble, which it thinks is well worth the risk
in view of the likely pay-off.
Yet there is no gainsaying the fact that at this time, nine
months or more before the election, Modi is the only leader
who arouses something akin to national interest. The
Congress party has its now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t
vice president Rahul Gandhi, who looks distinctly disinterested. Others such as Finance Minister P Chidambaram or
Defense Minister A K Antony can only be propped up with
palace support and have virtually no sphere of influence of
The BJP’s many leaders would all pale into insignificance
in terms of their appeal to the masses when pitted against
Modi. And while the hydra-like many-headed front of
regional parties may gain at the expense of the two main
parties but no one, not even their otherwise vocal leaders,
trust them to form anything other than a transient government, making way for the main parties after its foreordained collapse.
Modi’s onward journey has begun. Whether it reaches 7
Race Course Road, the prime minister’s official residence,
or has to return to Gandhinagar remains to be seen, but the
march is irresistible.
Then Indian prime minsiter Indira Gandhi with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in
New Delhi in 1980. Modi’s rise, says Shreekant Sambrani, is similar to Indira’s
SONDEEP SHANKAR/ SAAB PRESS
in the historic context, going beyond the breathless ‘
breaking news’ shackles.
One hundred years after the Congress was formed as a
political party out of the diverse groups advocating sundry
causes against the British colonial rule, the BJP became a
true political unit in the early 1990s.
The Congress saw its raisond’être as the inheritor of the
freedom movement, while the BJP did so as the champion
of Hindu nationalism. Gradually, as the Congress became
used to being the party of governance, its style of functioning and leadership evolved in sync with emerging conditions, even though it continued to pay diminishing obeisance to the values of the freedom movement, which has
now become a mere token.
Similarly, the BJP started forming governments in various states, either by itself or in partnership with like-minded parties, throughout the last two decades and acquired a
similar patina of a ruling formation. It also continued to
avow its adherence to Hindu ‘culture,’ but over this period,
realized that that song had diminishing appeal.
So much so that the supposedly Hindu nationalist party
goes through ritualistic incantations of its commitment to
building the Ram temple at Ayodhya, without any real
commitment to it, much to the irritation of fringe Hindu
groups within and outside the party.
The first generation of the BJP national leadership was
remarkably similar to the Nehru cabinet: Earnest, competent people, fairly conservative in their orientation and
learned in ways of the world. They did make a show of their
religious affiliation, but so did most of the first post-Independence generation of Congresspersons. Atal Bihari
Vajpayee, the sole BJP prime minister, was cast in the
Nehruvian mould and being compared to the first prime
minister pleased him no end.
The passing of that generation was sealed by the Goa