Narendra Modi’s object lesson in political grandiosity

In saying that he should be hanged publicly if he is found guilty of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has yet again provided an object lesson in political grandiosity.

His comments in an interview with Shahid Siddiqui, editor of the Urdu daily Nai Dunya, are symptomatic of a man who has an inordinately large sense of the self. What he is in effect saying is that even his failures and complicities, if those are indeed what he is guilty of, cannot be mitigated by a mere apology.

There seems to be another ploy behind daring a faceless adversary, namely, the country’s judiciary, to hang him. He is conscious that the bar of proving his direct involvement in the 2002 killings is so high and therefore practically futile that grandstanding by saying “Hang me, if I am guilty” is his best expedient option. It is also a case of extreme pre-emption.

Somewhere along the lines Modi also appears to betray a martyr complex by raising his alleged failures to the level of a crime deserving of the capital punishment. It is a narrative which would play well within his hardcore constituency that would also see any conviction of Modi as someone who took one for the team. That is ironic because Modi has never really seen himself as a team player.

As political posturing goes, this is fiendishly clever. For a politician subtly positioning himself for prime ministerial sweepstakes it cannot get smarter than choosing a virulent critic of his, editing a respected Urdu newspaper and a prominent Muslim to boot to give an interview which is a mixture of bluster and implied contrition. It is a no-brainer that he should have chosen an avowed critic of his to give a detailed interview in a newspaper largely read by the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. Even if he manages to persuade a small percentage of them to at least be open-minded about him, Modi might have reasoned, he would stand a fair chance in national elections.

Modi would have known that his comments would set off a political churning in the 24/7 broadcast media as well as the bastion of national politics, namely Uttar Pradesh. Politicians around the world, particularly those as crafty as Modi, treat all media interviews as an exercise in either building themselves up or reinforcing their relevance. In his cost-benefit analysis the one and a half hours spent with Siddiqui is worth so much more in terms of return on political investment. And Modi is nothing if not a Gujarati who instinctively understands return on investment (ROI).

Incidentally, speaking of ROI, Modi has been touring Japan for the past four days mostly to encourage Japanese investments in Gujarat. It could well be a coincidence that he is out of the country doing what he likes best, talking development, just as the interview has come out. But then it could also be deliberate.

Even for Modi, who never tires of renewing his vows with Gujarat every so often, 13 years would have been a long time to remain in the state, subject of course to his winning the next assembly elections later this year. By the time the 2014 national elections take place he would have completed nearly a decade and a half as Gujarat’s boss. The calculation appears to be to start clearing the brush in preparation for 2014.

Of course, the path from Gandhinagar to New Delhi is still full of ambushers lurking around, the most potent being reasonable acceptance of his politics on the national stage. With daggers drawn in his own party at the state level, not to mention profound antipathies coming from an important Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally in Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, it can be nobody’s case that Modi has it all laid out for him. The Nai Dunya interview is no doubt his way of testing the waters.

He cannot but be mindful that if he wants to pursue national ambitions he has to change his ways of dealing with members of his own party, not just at the state level but even at the national level. He can no longer conduct himself with the aloof self-assurance with which he has been known to do in Gandhinagar and expect that people will support him no matter what.

Not many in the BJP would publicly acknowledge this but they know that Modi sees himself as larger than the party. He is one of those singular figures who shed affiliations and loyalties without any qualms as long as the self remains in control. He gives the impression that he has replaced ideological fealties with a messianic self-belief.