What is the image of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the eyes of his supporters within and outside his party?
Modi has positioned himself as a strong leader who is interested in development, a man who delivers without making money for himself. Modi has made the issue of providing security -- national and economic -- to people as his Unique Selling Proposition.
He is that rare Indian politician without any family attachments. Notwithstanding his communal image, he has intelligently tried to maintain this image of being a 'strong leader who is relentlessly working to develop Gujarat'. People with a secular mindset suspect Modi, but his enemies also know that Modi has a base and is going strong.
In the last couple of years, from billionaires like Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata to his party's poor workers, many have found him fit to lead the nation. Gujarat's high growth rate has been credited to Modi's 'master account'.
After the Gujarat riots of 2002, in order to create this image of being a strong, honest and development-oriented leader Modi has dared to sideline his party and the media. He intelligently uses the party and the media when he wants. Nobody has any doubt that so far, things have been quite successful for Modi.
But, in this season of uncertainty, Modi is showing the first signs of desperation under the garb of becoming practical. His decisions in selecting candidates for his party shows that his terrific popularity as the muscular builder of Gujarat is just not enough to win the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The man who has, in the past six years, demoted corrupt partymen, humiliated money-making lobbyists and taken on builders, government contractors and even corrupt media barons, has stooped and how!
To know about Modi's missteps you only have to read the life story of Bhavsinh Rathod.
Rathod is Modi's choice for a BJP ticket from Patan Lok Sabha constituency in north Gujarat.
Some 40 years back, Bhavsinh started his career as a housebreaker. Really. He belongs to Other Backward Class Thakore community of marginal and poor farmers of north Gujarat. The first house he looted was of a newly-married couple.
His six-year long career in crime got disrupted when the Mehsana police arrested him and sent him to jail. After around five years of imprisonment and legal troubles he got into the business of financing, and diversified into the transport business. Around 1992-93, one of his trucks being unloaded in Cochin, Kerala, was seized by the customs department and found to be transporting contraband charas. The Kerala police could not find him and declared him an absconder. In 1995, Rathod tried his best to get a Congress ticket for the assembly elections but Gandhian Jinabhai Darji didn't allow his party to favour him.
But Rathod was was unstoppable. He fought as an independent from Sami-Harij constituency. Then, to win over the people, Rathod started his election campaign from the house of the same newly-wed couple whom he had looted when he began his career, even asking for their clemency. No wonder Rathod was capable of impressing people and winning elections. He found a writer as well who wrote his biography. Meanwhile a BJP leader informed the Kerala police that the absconding accused in the narcotics case is currently in the Gujarat assembly. He was arrested in 1996 and sent to jail.
Some years later, he was transferred to the Ahmedabad jail where Congress leader and Cabinet minister Shankersinh Vaghela lent him political support. Meanwhile, in 2003, his son Kishore was also arrested in a case relating to fake Rs 500 currency notes. Kishore was sent to jail and is now out on bail.
Rathod jailed in the narcotics case for more than three years. He was convicted in a lower court but after a prolonged legal battle he was acquitted by the Supreme Court which gave him the benefit of the doubt. He once again bounced back when he managed an assembly ticket from the Congress for Sami-Harij seat in 2007.
Banaskantha, Mehsana and Gandhinagar areas in Gujarat have substantial Thakore votes. Like most criminals, Rathod too plays his Robinhood act for political advantage.
He is a big time donor for 'mass marriages' in his community and has has a fancy for building temples for the Thakore clan as well. The Thakore community's brotherhood is very intense and still reminds one of old Gujarat. They conduct 'Jalo' meetings. It's a kind of social get-together where moong (pulse), fulvadi (fried salty snack) and ladoo (sweets) are cooked along with rice and lentils. Once the Jalo takes a decision to vote for some candidate, most community men and women stick to it. Rathod picks up the bill for this Jalo. His men are sure to propose a resolution to favour him in this election.
Since the last few years, to get the support of youth votes, Rathod has sponsored CDs of folk songs of his community on which he spent nearly Rs 40,000 per CD.
So, a man convicted and later acquitted in a narcotics case and who is now on bail on some other offenses, is honourable enough to share the podium with none other than the superstar politician Narendra Modi.
The irony is that Rathod's first choice was neither the BJP nor Modi. He wanted to remain with the Congress. Even while joining the BJP in the party's headquarters in Ahmedabad, Rathod had said, "I have sent my resignation to the party but if the Congress clears my nomination for Patan, then I will withdraw the resignation."
What needs pondering over is not what Rathod stands for but why Modi has selected four infamous candidates out of his state's 25 (one is yet to be declared) who have been to jail for duping people, for robbing poor bank depositors, and for allegations of trading in narcotics.
One would expect Modi to keep away from the likes of C R Patil from Navsari, Deepak Sathi from Anand and Prabhatsinh Chauhan from Godhra. But here they are, all set to become heroes by strengthening Modi's hands by probably winning their seats.
Patil became infamous when he faced allegations of corruption while in police service, specifically for trading in liquor in a state having prohibition. After leaving the police force, he entered business and politics. Patil was arrested by Modi's police for defaulting on the Diamond Jubilee Cooperative Bank. Patil had taken a loan of more than Rs 54 crore from the cooperative bank and did not repay the amount. The bank's operations were suspended and eventually it was liquidated, leaving thousands of poor depositors in the lurch. In the same way, Deepak Sathi's family had defaulted on the Charotar Bank and his inter-banking transactions sank two banks.
Prabhatsinh Chauhan, the BJP candidate from Godhra, took a fraudulent loan from the District Co-operative Bank in Panchmahal. Again, the bank collapsed, causing panic among depositors.
Sathi and Chauhan were imprisoned by the Modi government. When the depositors took the culprits to court, Modi smartly settled a majority of the accounts by bringing in Rs 400 crore from the Deposit Insurance & Credit Guarantee Corporation, a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India, which is also the people's money. At that time, in his first term in office, Modi was punishing these criminals who looted the people's money.
Legally speaking, Modi has done nothing wrong in giving tickets to one-time defaulters or criminals because under the Representation of the People Act 1951 anyone who has not been convicted for more than two years or whose conviction has been suspended, can contest the elections. Patil and Sathi have been paying their dues in installments, says a senior BJP leader.
It is imperative for Modi to win more than 18 seats out of 26 to make an impression outside Gujarat. There is no doubt that by giving tickets to these four tainted candidates who have 'cleared' themselves through a treacherous legal process, Modi has succumbed to realpolitik.
Vikram Vakil, a senior journalist based in Surat who has written scores of reports on these defaulters, says, "Modi has strengthened his position by selecting these controversial people. We have to accept the fact that they are winnable candidates."
A senior BJP leader told rediff.com, "Of course they are criminals. But, if we would have not given a ticket to Rathod, the Congress would have done so. We have seen the caste combination and social chemistry of these people in the region before giving them the tickets."
Modi has been on some kind of a shopping spree in the Congress's caste mall. He has given five seats, at least, to people who had some Congress connection in the past. He has tried to bring in Kshtriyas from the Congress's traditional KHAM vote bank ( which consisted of Kashtriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims).
The Patels of Gujarat have voted the BJP to power since 1995 but now Modi is trying to balance Patel power by honouring the OBC factor. His compromise in favour of Rathod seems to be for more than the 2.2 lakh Thakore votes in Patan. Rathod will have a ripple effect in the region as well to benefit the BJP in north Gujarat.
In this election, Modi, himself an OBC, is broadening the BJP's OBC base in the hope of hurting the Congress fundamentally.
Anand Yagnik, distinguished lawyer of Ahmedabad who has fought cases on behalf of the thousands of depositors against all three (Patil, Sathi and Chauhan), says, "Modi in his first term wanted to establish himself so he sent Patil, Sathi and Chauhan to jail. But now he wants to shift to national politics and so is giving the tickets to very same individuals whom he put in jail. This is the worst kind of politics of opportunism and expediency."
Modi, who blooms in the company of Tata and Ambanis and dreams of developing India, has somewhere tripped in his long-term game-plan when he selected the company of people like Bhavsinh Rathod and C R Patil.
It is surprising to see that Modi is ready to sacrifice his tenaciously built public image for just four Lok Sabha seats.