With his three-day fast, Narendra Modi has climbed the first step in a three-step ladder to being the Prime Minister in 2014. Modi's work in Gujarat is done. He all but claimed that in his speech on Saturday. His weekend fast is a show which has been choreographed to perfection. A tad too grand, too colour coordinated, too much like a scene out of a Manmohan Desai flick: the token skull-capped Muslim men, burqa-clad women, Buddhist monks, a Bharat Mata painting and a turbaned hero. Minor imperfections would have made the event look less grand and more humble, perhaps better suited the message he wanted to convey -- of Sadbhavana (amity).
Modi listed all that he had done to bring Gujarat out of the hell-hole it was in, due to natural calamities and communal violence. There wasn't a trace of modesty or humility in his speech. Like an injured tiger, he said that he was attacked but would not retaliate. There was a brief mention of some kind of pain, like a hernia that had to be gotten rid of. "I said at that time that riots should not happen in a civilised society, I had felt the pain. Now also, I am feeling the pain." It was a throwback to L K Advani's claim that the day Babri mosque was pulled down was 'the saddest day' in his life, and was similarly unconvincing.
Making a point: Modi has a formidable challenger in Nitish Kumar, who
miraculously transformed Bihar, and has no riots and massacres blotting
his record as the CM
The fast aging gen-next leaders of the BJP marked their presence at the fast. Jaitley and Swaraj both gave their approval. Gadkari's absence and Advani's equivocal comments didn't matter much. In a sense, this was Modi's stationary Ashwameda Yagya. In a traditional one, the king would let loose a horse and wherever the horse went, that land became his; if there was a dispute with the local ruler, war ensued. Modi fasted and everybody in the BJP bowed.
The second step in Modi's ladder to being the PM will be to get the NDA to choose him as its leader. He has a formidable challenger in Nitish Kumar, under whose watch a miraculously transformed Bihar has shed decades of backwardness and posted record growth rates. Nitish himself is unassuming, humble and mild-mannered. Moreover, no riots and massacres have blotted his record as the CM. For the NDA allies, this is a tough choice to make. With Modi being a polarising factor, they will lose the Muslim vote.
Can Mr Modi's leadership offset that loss? But it can't be only about numbers. A mazboot neta (strong leader) could be a foil to the seemingly weak current PM. But then the 'Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar' slogan spectacularly bombed last time around.
To climb the second step, Modi will have to work harder at his image, and then go beyond. He will have to seek forgiveness, heal the wounds and most importantly, do it with conviction. His current approach of sulking and claiming to be a victim of vicious propaganda is bound to fail. A way out of this quandary for the BJP can be to put off the decision to choose a leader till after the elections. However, a party campaigning on the platform of being 'decisive' wouldn't want to be seen as undecided about its prime-ministerial candidate.
With Dr Manmohan Singh almost certain to end as a two-term PM, the plan has to be to make Rahul Gandhi a PM candidate in 2014 for the Congress. In that case, round three for Modi will be to battle Rahul in a general election. Here, he will have to convince the people that his promise of efficiency and governance is better than Rahul's promise of inclusiveness, tolerance and youth.
But 2014 is still a long way away. Has Modi played his cards too soon? Not really. He has an election in 2012 in Gujarat, which he should easily win. The worst thing for him would be to get more arrogant with that win. For the Congress party, the best thing would be to take Modi's challenge seriously, work towards better governance, check corruption, deliver on election promises and break the back of the crippling price rise. That is, if it wants Rahul Gandhi to have a half-decent chance at being the PM in 2014.
Smita Prakash is Editor (News) at Asian News International. Follow her on Twitter at @smitaprakash.