Narendra Modi: First we take Gujarat, then we take…?
Who was the Bharatiya Janata Party politician who posed this rhetorical question? “I want to ask the Congress and the Prime Minister, would he like to face (a Special Investigation Team) now on the Coalgate scandal?”
It’s what you might expect from a national leader of the BJP, challenging the Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a countrywide controversy as a verbal volley before the parliament polls scheduled for 2014. But it was just Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi stirring the pot for this December’s assembly elections.
That is unusual for a state election campaign, which normally focuses on state problems. Though Modi did tie all this in to Gujarat with allegations of unfairness toward his state, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was waging a national campaign to be prime minister.
Instead of responding to criticism – namely the 2002 communal riots that killed over a thousand people as per government records – Modi has spoken out on topics ranging from illegal immigration from Bangladesh to policy paralysis in the Manmohan Singh government.
His attacks against Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, widely seen as his party’s ‘PM-in-waiting’, also point to a desire to spar with Congress on a national level. Look at his allegations of excessive international travel costs racked up by Sonia Gandhi, in which he quoted numbers that turned out not to exist.
Of course, Sonia Gandhi in 2007 took her fight to the state level as well, which worked out well for Modi as luck would have it. Back then, she made an issue of alleged fake encounters carried out by the Gujarat police.
She used the dramatic phrase “maut ke saudagar” (merchants of death) against Modi. The latter turned the jibe on its head and called it an attack on Gujarat’s pride. The rest is electoral history.
This time, Sonia Gandhi did not respond to the accusations levelled by Modi. Her pitch was determinedly local when she visited Gujarat on Wednesday. She hammered the government for treatment meted out to Dalits and tribal people in the state; she also said that the UPA coalition government that includes the Congress Party had allocated 50 per cent more funds for development in Gujarat compared to the BJP-led NDA coalition government when it was in power from 1998 to 2004.
Both avoided the lingering hot topic of the 2002 riots. In the 2002 and 2007 state elections, Modi used negative campaigning about the riots to polarise the electorate and consolidate his largely Hindu support base.
What should people outside Gujarat make of all this? Surely it can’t be his explanation – that he has to campaign against the national Congress Party bosses because there’s no one good enough to fight in his weight class back home. Whatever the reasons for his actions, it’s probably time for Indians to get more familiar with him before they visit the voting booth.