On September 29, soon after India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in New York with President Obama, he was being torn to pieces at home by two prime ministerial aspirants, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime candidate, Narendra Modi, and an opponent whose name is on the BJP's wish list because he's seen as easily beatable, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. With just seven months until the 2014 general elections, in which the country chooses a new government, India listened to Modi and Gandhi with rapt attention
Modi was addressing his largest audience ever on the outskirts of Delhi, the national capital, in close proximity to one of the city's largest gated communities - in an upper middle-class setting called Rohini, which hit headlines last June for a gang rape, one of the many for which the city of Delhi has become notorious.
Saffron is the BJP's trademark color, and the marquee set up for Modi was decorated with orange marigold garlands. Modi generally dresses in orange but wore white on this occasion to stand out against the orange backdrop. Overlooking the stage were 100-foot-high cutouts of Modi and huge LED screens that ensured that the 140,000 people gathered under the marquee did not miss an inflection. Trying to contain the inflow of Modi fans from states all around Delhi, the government closed all the borders, even as the BJP claimed 12,000 Muslims attended the Modi rally, even though he allegedly led a pogrom against Muslims in 2001. So, who is Narendra Modi, one might ask?
Folklore is deep-seated in India. The tale of the Pied Piper arose in medieval Europe ravaged by plague, when cities paid pipers in gold to draw away their rats by sweet music. Stories, especially when they are about men and rodents, tend to resurface once every so often, more so when "mouse charmer" becomes a familiar phrase in the life of a nation and the "mice" flood the internet with aggressive abuse campaigns for any critical word against the pied piper.
Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been constrained to note, "While it is imperative to maintain freedom of expression on social media, we must prevent mischievous elements from misusing this platform," and his government has threatened invocation of the provisions of section 66 of the Indian Telegraph Act, to curb social media abuse. This includes uploading fake videos to spread tensions between different religious groups. Social media is difficult to monitor, but Indian media claim it is easier to monitor the "pulse of the nation," and Narendra Modi is what the country supposedly wants.
Lovingly, they call him NaMo, and any detractor has "Namonia," an illness that begins and ends with criticism of the charming pied piper. From roadside parrots that pick fortune cards to those within many-layered temples, all predict, "Modi's time has come." It came with huge infighting within his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which pushed aside octogenarian leader Lal Krishna Advani in August, first to declare Modi the party's 2014 elections panel chief, and then, within weeks, to nominate him as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
It was Modi's 63rd birthday, September 17 and the most strident pracharak - propagandist - for the party could not have had a greater birthday gift. The third among six siblings, Modi is proud to declare at public meetings that he has not "inherited" the mantle of leadership, unlike Congress party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who belong to the Nehru-Gandhi (not Mahatma Gandhi's) family. The name "Gandhi" strikes a chord worldwide. Modi says his roots are among the "aam admi," the common man, and he is a "chaiwallah," a tea vendor, not an elitist, allowing his followers to claim, "anyone in the BJP can become a prime ministerial candidate." Not L. K. Advani, however. His dream was set aside with the chant of NaMo, NaMo (also an Indian word to describe devotion).
Modi's rise has been not only dramatic, but meteoric. As a tea vendor at a bus stand, Modi was soon noticed by the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP and a dozen other stridently right-wing outfits in India. He shone during the General Emergency declared in the country in 1975 and was praised as a "young and proactive" leader. Since 1987, he was delegated to the Jana Sangh and then the BJP, and by 2001, he had become the chief minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat, bordering Pakistan. After being elected to a third five-year term, Modi has shifted his gaze from Gandhinagar to Delhi, yet Delhi seemed a far cry on this sultry Sunday, when he was greeted by rain and upstaged by opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Modi is not a mass leader, and his ambition to become a national leader is far-fetched, his opponents say. True or not, it was apparent that a young "mouse brigade" had been purposefully placed in the front rows, who kept chanting "Modi, Modi," to the utter frustration of the prime-minister-to-be, who was heard telling them to keep quiet so that he could speak. He, of course, never said a single word about the Obama-Singh meeting that endorsed a defense cooperation that made India one of the United States' biggest and closest allies (India's defense spending is nearly $40 billion), or the nearly $10 billion arms purchase from America during the Singh regime, or the nuclear liability clause. Instead, Modi criticized the prime minister's stature, which allegedly suffered with Rahul Gandhi's criticism of a pro-corruption ordinance the Singh Cabinet had tried to push through.
Modi is not known to have ever taken any stand on Pakistan. However, in his first Delhi meeting, he chose to criticize Singh's meeting in New York with Nawaz Sharif on September 29 by quoting from a false media report that had alleged Sharif had, in a breakfast tête-à-tête with the media, compared Singh to a "village woman." Journalists from both India and Pakistan testified that this allegation was untrue. However, the charge ruffled Nawaz Sharif enough for Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani to call up India's National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon to deny it. Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, thus not only made a diplomatic faux pas, but he also managed to rub Pakistan's prime minister the wrong way, making himself a laughing stock. Because of team Modi's excessive reliance on internet reports and his spouting of figures that are inaccurate, Modi has made himself the target of a campaign that calls him a "gas bag," a boaster who likes to throw about false information. For someone who just a few months ago, declared, "For me the glass is always full - half with water and half with air . . .," a glass full of air is not an ideal way to begin a campaign.