Riots had happened in Gujarat. Narendra Modi had been appointed Chief Minister just a few months ago. He had been parachuted into the State of which he had no experience because the local party machinery was rift with feuds and corruption, much like their opponents in the Indian National Congress.
The first challenge before Modi was to contain the riots, ensure that justice was done and provide people with the necessary moral support so that they may overcome the trauma of the riot.
Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee arrived in Gujarat to counsel Modi. ‘Stick to Raj Dharma’ Shri Vajpayee said. Modi of course did whatever he thought was needed to be done. He was no mass leader. Yet, he reached out to people. Talked to them. Convinced them that no injustice would be allowed to go unpunished. And of course he put extraordinary pressure on the government machinery to ensure that justice was done to everyone, that government help reached to all in a fair and just manner.
The big test for Modi came when elections were declared a few months later. At the advise of Modi the BJP decided to launch the election campaign from a far-off tribal village, especially one that had never ever voted for the BJP before. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani had to be convinced that this was a good idea. For both of them the most important thing was that going to a distant village would be traumatic. The living conditions in these far off tribal villages were really not up to the high standards of comfort that both the ageing leaders had come to expect. Moreover, these forest villages had extreme weather conditions. That was one of the reasons why only a small number of tribals lived here and everyone else migrated to the towns.
At Modi’s insistence, the start of the election campaign from this remote tribal village was tom-tomed as a great event. Not too many journalists, though, bothered to come here to cover what they imagined to be a non-event. One who did come was a strong Congress supporting journalist who ended up in Chandigarh later on. His report in the Times of India gave a glimpse of things to come. After giving a thick description of the gathering in the tribal village, Harish Khare reported that Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat got up to speak. The crowd listened to him in rapt attention. Then they walked off. Very few waited to hear the Prime Minister of India or the most powerful man in the BJP.
Harish Khare effectively noted, and I think this is the first such note, that maybe Vajpayee and Advani have had their day. The next big leader on the national stage in India is going to be Narendra Modi.
The only ones to take note of Khare’s observations were the top leaders of the Congress party. They began to target Modi. Much to their dislike, despite their best efforts, once Modi did declare his intention to take on national level responsibilities, the people of India, in large masses, came forward to help him become the Prime Minister of India.
Rajiv Lochan is a renowned scholar, historian and columnist