‘Narendra Modi seeks image make-over.’ ‘Rahul Gandhi puts Modi on the defensive.’
In identical or similar words, such comments are common today in India. After facing setbacks in state-level elections, and staring at the national elections that are due before June, Narendra Modi, whose marketing skills worked wonders in 2014, is now trying to sell a more democratic persona to an uneasy and disappointed public.
On 1 January he even appeared before the nation facing a journalist, Smita Prakash, editor of the news agency, ANI, and tried to play it ‘cool,’ to quote Shailaja Bajpai of the Indian Express.
The next day, however, Prime Minister Modi failed to show up in Parliament when it discussed the Rafale deal, an absence underscored and deplored by several commentators including Shekhar Gupta of the website theprint.in.
Gupta, a prominent analyst, added that Rahul’s attacks in Parliament on 2 January had put the government on the back foot.
One of Rahul Gandhi’s cutting remarks in Parliament was this: “…The entire nation is asking why the Prime Minister can speak for one-and-a-half hour in a staged interview and not answer the fundamental questions of Rafale.”
Shekhar Gupta noted that Modi’s absence was compounded by the silence during the 2 January discussion of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
It’s early days yet. It will be interesting to see whether for the parliamentary elections Modi will again provide a one-person show (with support from party chief Amit Shah), or whether BJP leaders thus far off-screen will be asked to join the A team of the BJP campaign.
While Modi’s strong-leader image benefited the BJP in 2014, the party may now need a wider nucleus of campaigners. Will Modi’s nature permit such an expansion?
Friday 4 January is likely to see the start of the Supreme Court’s examination of the vexed question of who owns the land where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished by a mob of extremists in December 1992. The degree and manner in which the BJP will try to use the temple/mosque issue for the elections may become apparent as the SC hearings proceed.
Recent weeks have cast some doubts on the theory that communal polarization always profits the BJP. While inflammatory rhetoric clearly energizes a major section of its base, that rhetoric has appeared in recent months to alienate a larger number of Indian voters.
In recent weeks, several BJP allies have freely criticized the Modi government, and now a prominent BJP MP, Udit Raj, a champion of Dalit rights, has publicly opposed the BJP’s agitation in Kerala against the Supreme Court’s judgement in favour of women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple.
Regional parties like Telangana’s TRS, which scored a most impressive victory three weeks ago and which until recently was careful not to displease the Modi government, now feel far freer. The TRS leader and Telangana chief minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, has even named a Muslim as his state’s home minister.
The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, and the long-serving central minister, Ram Vilas Paswan (also from Bihar), are influential politicians who hitherto have supported or allied with the BJP. In recent days they have made it clear that they would not welcome a ratcheting up of communal rhetoric.
In short, things appear to be a little brighter than they were a couple of months back.