By Ashok Thakur
With the completion of the seventh phase of polling on Sunday, the process of exercising franchise is over at the national level. Now, the sight is set on May 23, when counting of votes would take place. This intermission of three days has provided enough time and opportunity to all political pundits for kite flying. The usual customary Exit Polls have provided required fodder for crispy debate all over. Will the ruling NDA, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, get the required numbers to form the government? Or will he be forced to seek help from other non-Congress parties? Will these parties oblige Modi & co and, if yes, what would be the cost? If the balance tilts the other way, will Congress President Rahul Gandhi get an opportunity to sit in the saddle?
There are many interesting questions without satisfactory answers. Perhaps, to add to the confusion, Modi visited the holy Kedarnath shrine in the Himalayas and performed ‘dhyan’ in a cave.
BJP President Amit Shah, in turn, visited Somnath temple in Gujarat. Why? Are these mere manifestations of personal faith or thanksgiving? Or is it that the Modi-Shah duo has lost its nerve and is making the beeline for temples? We will have to wait for three more days to find the answers. Meanwhile, even as the curtains came down on the election campaign, the recurring political flutter did not end. Immediately afterwards, Shah addressed a press conference. The intriguing part was that Modi himself attended the conference but curiously did not take any questions from the press. Why? Amit Shah told a journalist “The PM does not need to answer” at the party press conference. Modi and Shah knew they were exposing themselves to mockery and memes but simply did not care. The two-man brains trust had something else in mind – move the headlines away from their candidate Pragya Thakur, who had described Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin as a “desh bhakt”. This line has been popular among ‘bhakts’ and BJP WhatsApp groups I monitor for professional reasons. Pragaya Thakur’s declaration was in my opinion a trial balloon and was immediately seconded by Anant Hedge, a Union Minister. The BJP’s IT Cell Chief Amit Malviya had earlier tested the waters with tweets that amount to a defence of Nathuram Godse. Malviya recently deleted these tweets which date back to January 2015. Modi and Shah thought they could ride out the outrage but the anger among even hardcore BJP workers, especially in Madhya Pradesh, where Pragya Thakuar’s candidature in Bhopal has been hugely contentious, caught them by surprise. Thus,“Project Godse” was shelved for another day. Two points are important. Pragya Thakur went through rituals of offering regrets, not an apology. And, her comment was picked up in a choreographed chorus by two Union ministers and a party spokesperson. The backlash to the eulogy caught the Sangh by surprise.
It also came on the heels of the vandalising of the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during Amit Shah’s road show. Nine seats in Bengal have gone to polls in the seventh and last phase. Modi did an immediate damage control by saying to a channel that he would never be able to forgive Pragya Thakur from his heart. Shah, who had been unperturbed, a day later realised that he was actually angry and issued a show cause notice to the Godse-is-patriot gang. The last time the disciplinary committee acted was when the party expelled Jaswant Singh for his book on Jinnah. That was 10 years ago. Modi’s real purpose, according to senior BJP leaders, was to scout for new allies from among those parties considered “neutral” to both the Congress and the BJP. Hence the statement that the BJP would win 300 seats on its own, but it was amenable to accepting new allies on board. Modi’s entire tone was conciliatory. He smiled and joked that he used to have tea in the party headquarters with journalists. Gone was the stern strong visage of a leader who barely revealed a flicker of a smile. Modi even made a virtue of not answering a single question at the press conference, deflecting the question to “Adhayaksh-ji” Shah presided over the show, but, make no mistake, it was a well-rehearsed tango of partners who know each other inside out. Shah covered the extremist base, which is feeling enthused by Thakur’s candidature, by saying she would not be withdrawn despite the PM’s publicly expressed anguish. Shah used Gandhi’s language, which he kept referring to as “Bapu”, saying Thakur’s nomination was BJP’s “satyagraha” against the Congress for a coining the term “Hindu terror”. Those in the inner circles believe that the 25 in-house surveys conducted by the BJP at huge expense have been inconclusive about the exact margin by which the party will win.
Hence the projection of public confidence but also signals to future allies that talks are welcome. Both Modi and Shah know that if the BJP needs support, “neutral” parties such as the Biju Janata Dal of Navin Patnaik and the YSR Congress of Jagan Mohan Reddy would find it hard to deal with Modi and Shah. The party may have to find a leader who is less of a cult figure and will easily slip into the “Mukhauta”. On the other hand, Sonia Gandhi’s outreach to the entire opposition has a single axis: ally with us against Modi and Shah. The numbers will determine the takers for the Sonia formula. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee has deftly changed the narrative to that of Shah and BJP affronting Bengal pride, playing on what Modi used with great effect in Gujarat with his constant invocation of “Gujarat Asmita”. Now all of us have to hold our breath and wait and see who crosses the finishing line. INAV