Narendra Modi is contesting 2019 elections not as India’s PM but as Gujarat’s CM of 2002

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Narendra Modi has his priority right in 2019. He is no longer talking about bullet trains or smart cities.

Mid-way through the Lok Sabha elections, voters are keeping everyone’s hopes alive. The NDA camp is reading a repeat of 2014 in the vocal support on the ground for Narendra Modi and the Balakot air strikes; the Left libs and the so-called secular camp are looking for a ‘1977-like’ prevalence of ‘silent votes’ and a determining role of caste; and the psephologists — or most of them, to be fair to a professional few – are making hay with caveat-laden predictions that would hold true regardless of the results on 23 May.

They are all watching every word, every action of top leaders to see signs of support for their own political preferences. For those who want a change of guard at the Centre, the gathering of NDA partners in Varanasi to witness the filing of nomination papers by Modi was a sign that the BJP is ‘jittery’ about not getting a majority on its own. For those who want another term for Modi, the same gathering was ‘a show of strength’.

The many interpretations for Modi’s act of touching the feet of Shiromani Akali Dal leader Parkash Singh Badal, a nonagenarian, were on similar lines. And so were the perceptions regarding Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s demand from the Election Commission to stop the use of EVMs and revert to ballot system, two days after the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in the state.

On 23 May, it will be clear which camp got it right and which didn’t. But, after three of the seven phases of polling — the fourth is underway Monday — there are two takeaways from Modi’s politics this election season.

First, Modi is contesting like the Gujarat chief minister of 2002, determined to regain power whatever be the cost — and not like a statesman Prime Minister a la Atal Bihari Vajpayee, looking to leave a legacy.

On Friday, Modi and Malegaon bomb blast accused and BJP candidate from Bhopal Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur were on the same page as they projected themselves as victims of the Congress’ ‘injustice and atrocities’, with Thakur citing it to equate herself with the Prime Minister. In a TV interview on the banks of the Ganges Friday, he declared her innocent and pointed out how the Congress had also targeted him in a similar fashion. Pragya Thakur may or may not be a victim of a political conspiracy, but can you think of the Prime Minister of India declaring the innocence of a terror blast accused who is out on bail?

“Miya Musharraf” and Pakistan used to be his keywords in 2002 speeches; 17 years later, his speeches are still not complete without references to Pakistan.

After 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a sizeable section of the country’s intelligentsia, including many Modi-baiters, were inclined to believe that as a Prime Minister he was looking to leave his legacy as a ‘vikas purush’ and a statesman politician. As he travelled around the globe, many in the BJP would talk about how he awed world leaders, often adding that his friend and then-US president Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for strengthening international diplomacy.

Modi has his priority right in 2019. He is no longer talking about bullet trains or smart cities. People should vote for him because only he can provide them the security without which their material possessions, or aspirations for them, are meaningless.

The second takeaway is Modi’s – and his confidant Amit Shah’s – assessment about the sheer irrelevance of the BJP candidates and aspiring Members of Parliament, no matter what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) says against individualism and personality cult.

Lok Sabha election in 2019 is all about Modi as it was in 2014. “In all corners of the country, they believed Modi was the only hope and wanted to see him win,” Modi had told British author Lance Price after the 2014 election.

Exasperated with the delay in the announcement of party candidates, a ticket-seeker from Punjab came to see BJP national general secretary (organisation) Ram Lal, who then called up party president Amit Shah to convey the state leader’s feelings. “What’s the hurry? People will vote for Modi, not for him” was the message from Shah as conveyed to the Punjab leader who eventually didn’t get the party ticket.

The BJP leadership isn’t wrong in its assessment. Seldom does one hear potential BJP voters on the ground talking about the merits or demerits of party candidates; it’s all about Modi.

But in sustaining and promoting Brand Modi — the Prime Minister says he is not a brand, instead his is a ‘zindagi’ or a life that is lived in the service of others — the BJP is becoming much like the Congress where popular regional leaders have to be sidestepped and finished politically for the Nehru-Gandhi family to survive and thrive.

Look at how former chief ministers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh — who are all mass leaders in their own right, have been sidelined and pushed to the margins in the BJP today. Each of them, as many others, had the potential to grow into a national leader, but the BJP would rather make do with only one mass leader, Modi, for as long as it lasts.

The Congress looks doomed today as the Nehru-Gandhi family no longer has the appeal to ensure a candidate’s victory and there is no second-rung leadership to take charge.