Who are the men who are quietly orchestrating Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign? Radhika Ramaseshan zeroes in on a disparate group that’s come together on a one-point mission: to see the Gujarat CM installed as Prime Minister
The young women are in their tank tops and jeans; the men, hair gelled into spikes, peer at their screens wearing jazzy shirts. Plastered on the walls are pie charts, highlighting facts and figures that they need to keep on their fingertips.
It’s not, as you would suspect, a call centre at work. It’s the buzzing headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the brainstorming nucleus at the BJP headquarter in Lutyens’s Delhi.
Unless you seek it out, the single-storey structure resembling a boxed-in military barrack escapes notice. A signage warns that only “authorised” persons with a special pass can enter. There’s nothing forbidding about the place that smells of samosas fried in recycled oil and blends with the grotty look of the BJP campus.
A sneak peek opens up another world. In Modi’s functioning hub, spread over four large work spaces, beat nearly a hundred hearts and minds, eyes fixated on their computer screens, looking up occasionally on the pie charts which pack in the Modi narratives. Ishrat Jahan, says one chart — referring to a young woman allegedly killed in an encounter in Gujarat. Madhu Kishwar is the header on the chart that zeroes in on the feminist-writer morphed into a Modi votary. Narmada, defence, education, corruption — ready figures are all on the charts to buttress the argument that Modi is the man for the nation.
- ON A WAR FOOTING: (From top) Narendra Modi’s machinery includes Ram Madhav, Suresh Prabhu, Ramlal, Amit Shah, Piyush Goyal, Arvind Gupta and Manoj Ladwa
The legion of youngsters — men and women in their 20s and 30s — is Modi’s constituency, and a crucial part of his campaign as well. Freshly minted out of universities or on a break from plum jobs, they are out to “fulfill a mission” — and that’s “Mission 272+”, the BJP’s tagline for the target it has set out to achieve to be able to form a government at the Centre.
One such campaigner, who was 13 in 2002 when Gujarat erupted into sectarian violence, admits that he battled peer hostility when he teamed up with the “Modi mission”. He headed the students’ union in one of Delhi’s premier colleges and had friends with differing political persuasions. “They asked me, are you going to be associated with a mass murderer? I Google-searched everything there was on the Gujarat violence and the legal cases that followed thereafter. I was relieved when the Supreme Court-monitored special investigation team gave Modi a clean chit. I told my buddies the law is supreme. I function without a baggage,” he says.
His colleague, an IIT-IIM product who threw up work at McKinsey’s for Modi, was less bothered by 2002. “To me, the spur was Modi’s speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) last year. One sentence he said about maximum governance and minimum government struck me as radical because it came from a mainline politician. It hit me there must be something distinctive about the guy.”
The dream to see the Gujarat chief minister installed in South Block has brought disparate people together. Among them is Prashant Kishor, a core member of Modi’s pit crew who winged his way from Africa two years ago. He headed the UN’s strategic planning and social policy group for eight years and is now Modi’s prime event ideator-cum-executor and political resource person.
Even a year ago, few would have thought that Modi could ever be pitched as a Prime Minister. But his campaigners clearly are eager to take the bull by the horn — as John F. Kennedy’s band of men did in the Sixties in the United States, and as, almost 50 years later, a new group came to the aid of Barack Obama. The similarities are evident — the core group in each case had or has just one mission: to see their leader occupy the throne. But unlike the court at Camelot, consisting of men such as Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger — where the advisors often clashed with one another, Modi’s men — so far — are a well-yoked team.
And, no, Kishor stresses — Modi’s team is not patterned after Obama’s campaign team of 2008 that had a cast of now legendary characters such as David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel. “Here, individuals have party-led support and in the US presidential election run-up, an individual propped up the party,” he holds.
The party-individual equation has evolved into a machinery that works on three tiers: ad makers, speechwriters and assorted spinners managing Modi’s image and campaigns; the field operatives who find the votes and deliver them to the booths; the strategists whose job is to zero in on mid-course flaws and blunders and try and plug them.
At the helm is Modi. “He manages only up to the point when he trusts you completely. But that might take time. He’s a perfectionist,” an aide says.
Not everybody, of course, is convinced that Modi’s men will ensure his victory. “Modi’s campaign has not touched the lower social strata and the non-Hindi speaking states,” says former BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya. “It has only swayed people in the urban and semi-urban areas, including those from the upwardly mobile backward caste communities who have, over the years, aligned themselves with the upper castes and classes.”
But in the room where the Modi campaign is being honed every day, Govindacharya — along with party veterans L.K. Advani or Jaswant Singh — represents yesterday. Here, the buzz is today, and there is work to be done.
“Every member is an over-worked bee but the bees work willingly because they know that at the end of the day they will get a government they are yearning for and a Prime Minister they badly want,” a BJP office bearer maintains.
A glimpse at some of the busy bees:
Be afraid, be very afraid. His heavily-lidded eyes, imperturbable demeanour and languid speech do not tell you that Shah is the most — read MOST — important person in Modi’s brain trust. Over a year into his assignment as the party’s general secretary minding Uttar Pradesh, even Modi’s detractors grudgingly acknowledge that Shah brought “immense professionalism” into straightening out the shambolic state of affairs in the state BJP.
Shah — born in Chicago into a business family — worked as a stock broker and served the RSS and the Sangh’s student front, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, in Ahmedabad.
The RSS spotted his talent for crafting political strategies and managing elections and asked him to work as BJP leader Advani’s constituency manager in Gandhinagar. Shah delivered victory after victory for Advani in a seat that was never an easy one for the BJP at the best of times.
Not surprisingly, when Modi fought his first election in Gujarat under the cloud of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, he drafted Shah as his principal political aide. From then on, there was no looking back for Shah. Though arrested for a series of “fake” encounters and sent out of Gujarat for fear that his presence could influence the investigations into the encounters, Shah was allowed to return shortly before the last Gujarat elections. He contested from an Ahmedabad seat and romped home with a bigger margin than Modi’s.
From minding Maninagar, Modi’s constituency in Gujarat, to micro managing the state elections, playing nanny to the bureaucracy and taking the rap in choppy situations, Shah is Modi’s man for all reasons and seasons.
Behind Modi’s encounters with people over a cup of tea is this shy and skinny man who heads a group called the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) — a platform for youths to “engage with the political and administrative establishment to usher in an era of greater accountability and better governance”.
Kishor, 34, has been associated with Modi for over two years and now runs an elite team drawn from Ivy League schools and the IITs and IIMs. Many of Kishor’s team members either left marquee jobs or are on a sabbatical. Like him, they work pro bono.
CAG came into the limelight last October when it hosted an event called “Manthan” (or churning) at Delhi’s Thyagaraja Stadium to follow up on Modi’s rock-star showing at SRCC in January, 2013. It pulled in nearly 7,000 students who played policy wonks for a day. Modi sat through the morning-to-night function, without saying much but hearing out everything.
But the Ballia-born strategist’s brief transcends event management and cyber connectivity — he is into the minutiae of constituency assessments and social equations and has done the spadework for choosing candidates. All the while, he remains invisible — no, thank you, he doesn’t wish to be photographed.
Goyal has old ties with the BJP — his father Ved Prakash was a party treasurer and minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Cabinet and mother Chandrakanta was a member of the legislative Assembly in Maharashtra. Goyal, a chartered accountant and a lawyer by education and training, was an investment banker until he became a Rajya Sabha MP. He also inherited his father’s job as the BJP’s treasurer.
The 49-year-old loyalist was among the first to bat for the idea of Modi-as-PM — when his contemporaries were beset with doubts. He now heads the Information Technology (IT) communication sub-committee, a constituent of the BJP’s overall campaign committee, and liaises with individuals and groups working on Modi’s agenda to conquer cyber space through sites such as NaMo for PM and Mission 272+.
Among those pulling the Modi juggernaut is this first generation politico from a business family who now heads the BJP’s IT cell. “Politics is the biggest instrument for making policy changes. At present, the BJP is the most effective instrument of that change. That’s why I am there,” says Gupta, a product of IIT-Banaras Hindu University and the University of Illinois.
Gupta, who sold his software firm in 2009 and started working for the BJP, is in charge of websites, uploading videos of rallies and meetings, sending them to media houses, posting comments and releases — and rebutting opponents on the Net. If you see a shot of a pensive Modi in Varanasi — with a maze of buildings behind him — or looking natty in a blue linen kurta while leading foreign dignitaries, you probably have to thank Gupta for it.
Modi’s chief principal secretary is a retired IAS officer who worked for long years in Modi’s secretariat. “KK” — as he is known — has been helping the CM reach out to disparate groups and individuals. A Tamilian settled in Kerala, he put him in touch with Amritanandamayee, the guru of Kerala from the fisherfolk community. In April, 2013, KK facilitated Modi’s appearance at the Sivagiri Math in Kerala that was founded by social reformer Narayana Guru, worshipped by Dalits and some backward castes.
In Gujarat, KK actively supervises the government’s outreaches to tribals, who traditionally have formed a Congress vote bank, and keeps an eye on the re-distribution of forest land.
- PROMOTION IS ALL: Rajesh Jain (above) and B.G. Mahesh
Rajesh Jain and B.G. Mahesh
With the thrust on new media, there is always a demand for people who know the subject. Jain is a low key, media shy Mumbai-based entrepreneur who helped revolutionise Internet use in India with his IndiaWorldWeb portal. With Mahesh, he handles Modi’s campaign on Twitter and Facebook with 100 techies. His newest big bang idea aims at maximising voter turnout through the Internet. Registered voters have to dial a particular number with their voter ID number and they will instantly receive the details of their polling booth.
Jain studied at Columbia University and now runs a mobile data solutions company called Netcom Solutions. Mahesh, who lives in Bangalore, is the founder of Greynium Information Technologies which owns OneIndia, one of the first regional language news portals. In 2010, Jain’s Netcom acquired a majority stake in Greynium.
In June, 2012, Jain proposed in a post that the BJP work towards creating a wave in 2014 across India and more so in the 330-350 seats where it was in competition. The BJP’s focus, he said, should be on maximising its strike rate and seats and not on pre-poll allies.
The two men are behind the Modi promotion sites Niti Central and India272. Niti — an acronym for New Initiatives to Transform India — has teams working in the digital media space on elections, with former journalist and PMO official Kanchan Gupta as its editorial director. It broadcasts Modi’s public appearances real time on its website. India272 enlists volunteers from the 150 million new voters in the 18-22 age group in the “Vote for NaMo crusade”.
Support from overseas is being harnessed by the British Gujarati solicitor who is a partner at MLS Chase Corp Advisory, a management consultancy firm in London. He has worked pro-actively among Britain’s huge Gujarati-speaking diaspora and beyond to polish Modi’s credentials. Ladwa is believed to be among those who sold the “Vibrant Gujarat” investment powerhouse dream to Britain and persuaded the establishment to look at Modi through the economic prism.
Ram Madhav wears two hats; one as an RSS office-bearer and the other as a think-tank “specialist”. A pioneering techie in the Sangh, Madhav is a member of its central executive and the deputy chief of its outreach cell. He is also the director of the India Foundation, a Delhi-based strategic studies and international relations think-tank that recently organised an interactive session between Modi and representatives of corporate India.
Originally a Shiv Sainik and now a member of Madhav’s think-tank, Prabhu has more or less decoupled himself from the Sena. The chartered accountant with a law degree was one of A.B. Vajpayee’s favourite ministers when he held the power portfolio at the Centre. The energy sector is on top of Modi’s agenda — and the CM appreciates the fact that Prabhu is unabashedly pro-reform.
The former MP was also the first to cry off his speaking engagement at the economic forum sponsored by the Wharton Business School in 2013. The provocation was Wharton’s decision to cross Modi’s name off the list of distinguished speakers.
Modi and his band of men are shaping up a gigantic wave. Will the wave sweep across the nation, or will it ebb?
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