Broad chest, narrow shoulders

For all those people who might think Narendra Modi is made of the stuff of great things, actually he is proving to be so much of a very small man.

I am simply surprised that The Great Administrator who has prime ministerial ambitions does not even have the confidence to hang on to his chair as chief minister of Gujarat against all the voices riding against him in his own party. That’s quite obvious from the surfacing and resurfacing of posters against him on the streets of Gujarat in various cities, not just anonymously but also with the BJP party symbol the second time round.

Earlier, amid reports that Modi had forced Sanjay Joshi, the RSS pracharak on loan to the BJP, who had been put in charge of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, to cancel his return to New Delhi via train from Bombay, I was sure that much as Modi might claim he has a broad chest, he seems to have very narrow shoulders. For had he been less of a dictator and more of a consummate politician, he would have allowed Joshi’s rail yatra to go through and used the occasion to gauge how much support Joshi really had and who his own friends were and who were his enemies in the party. And he would have kept Joshi engaged in all sorts of useless tasks instead of forcing his resignation from the national executive or driving him towards a return to the RSS.

I believe neighbouring state Maharashtra’s politicians are far more skilled at containing their rivals – and that is limited not just to that master of the game, Sharad Pawar, or the Congress party. Even the Shiv Sena is pretty adept at it and there have been occasions when even the protagonists have not known that they have been had, discovering how they have been sidelined years later when it was too late to do anything about it.

The best example of this is the case of Bal Thackeray’s nephew, Raj, who had to break away from the Shiv Sena to regain his own relevance among the people. Raj was always brash and never knew where to draw the line. He was also very close to his illustrious uncle as at one time he was he only other Thackeray who showed an interest in entering politics; all of Thackeray’s other children were busy with their own pursuits.

Now the senior Sena leaders who had been with Thackeray for over 30 years, and had seen Raj born before their eyes, could not tolerate any of his nonsense. They hatched a plot to cut him off from the source of his power in the party. In fact, even before it began to be obvious to other political observers, one senior Sena leader told me, “We are keeping him away from Matoshree (Thackeray’s home and the centre of power in the party) as far as possible.’’

Their plan was simple and very ingenuous: they used Raj’s love for campaigning and dispatched him to the hinterland to build up the party. The Sena was always an urban outfit and they knew he could run no harm in the rural areas. If, on the other hand, his campaigning style (akin to Bal Thackeray’s), helped their party to gain a foothold in the villages, they could always claim the benefit of their strategy for themselves.

“And what about the times when there are no elections in Maharashtra?” I asked.

He laughed. “Oh, those times we plan to keep him confined to the studios!” Raj’s love for art was played upon again and he was put in charge of producing the Shiv Sena’s campaign videos, audio tapes, posters and other election material. Of course, they were immensely imaginative pieces of political satire that Raj produced but the net result of that preoccupation was that he had really no time to drop in on his uncle at Matoshree.

In the meantime, these leaders propped up Thackeray’s youngest son, Uddhav, as a go-between to co-ordinate with Balasaheb and allowed his natural ambition to take over. That drove a wedge between the two cousins. No matter what Uddhav might get up to, they were sure his soft-spoken manner and his deferent and reverent style of dealing with party elders would never allow him to get out of hand as Raj had done.

It took Raj nearly a decade to realise how completely he had been cut out of the picture: since his daily dealings with his uncle were now no more, he could not even persuade anyone to give tickets to his supporters. Very soon his own men were beginning to ask even journalists if we thought their leader had any future in the party. Raj was compelled to then break away and strike out on his own: the leaders who thought it all up are still sitting pretty in the party, though the Shiv Sena has since gone to the dogs. These smart-alecky leaders have done pretty well for themselves even if both Uddhav and his father are struggling to keep their party relevant to the masses.

But Sena leaders were not the only latter-day Machiavellis running loose in Maharashtra. Taking train rides through the state seems to be a Maharashtrian speciality and I was not really surprised to learn that Sanjay Joshi had chosen this means to assert his popularity in Gujarat. I have seen both Pawar and his mentor for a time, Vasantdada Patil, do the same. In later years, after Pawar first split the Congress by stabbing ‘Dada’ in the back, there was much unease between the two on Pawar’s return to the Congress in 1986. I saw Dada take train rides – and Pawar, as then chief minister, allowed those to go through. It was a means of not just judging how much support the old war horse still had among the people (and he had considerable) but also of ferreting out and identifying those who were supporting his rival.

Then, again, when another rival, SB Chavan, did not invite Pawar, then CM, to his birthday party one year, Pawar gate-crashed anyway – ‘gracefully’ bringing him flowers and his best wishes, eating a slice of the cake and then exiting without much ceremony. Not only did that throw the rival but I was much startled to see many of the invitees dart behind pillars in the huge hall to avoid being spotted by Pawar – these were the ones playing double games, pretending to be Pawar’s supporters while fuelling rivalry among his competitors.

Some of them got caught out and were marginalised. But there were others who were accommodated by the Maratha warlord. When I wondered why, I was told it was much better to keep these dangerous mischief-makers under his gimlet eye by giving them a stake in the system: they were appointed to various posts with perks which they would stand to lose if they indulged in mischief again. On the other hand, those posts were really worthless politically-speaking and only succeeded in these people losing touch even as they believed they had important jobs under his administration.

That style has always reminded of the famous quote by American president Lyndon B Johnson. When asked why he had accommodated a troublesome rival in his administration, he said, “It is probably better to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

But, clearly, Modi’s dictatorial style, wherein he seems to be the centre of his own universe and believes everything else revolves round him, blind him to the kind of state craft that has kept many other politicians, smaller or bigger than himself, on top of the situation for decades.

Sanjay Joshi was too much of a political midget to have merited this kind of attention from the Gujarat chief minister. And letting him go, I believe, would be even more dangerous. He could end up as a loose cannon and cause more damage to Modi’s ship from the outside than he would ever have from the inside: out of the party, neither Modi nor anybody else in the BJP might be able to reign him in. He has now nothing to lose – or resign for.

And if he succeeds in blasting a hole in Modi’s ship (for he has much sympathy and support within both the BJP and the RSS), it could well take the wind out of the Gujarat CM’s sails. For this wind will be blowing from the east (of Gujarat: RSS headquarters in Nagpur). As they say, when the wind blows from the east, it catches fish the least. Perhaps, then, its high time that Modi began to adjust his own sails before the wind blows it away.

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