Delhi-bound? Modi thanks and bears it

Radhika Ramaseshan

Ahmedabad, Dec. 3: Narendra Modi has no doubt that he is about to deliver to the BJP its most stupendous victory in Gujarat. But ask about speculation ' fuelled by his own party colleagues ' on a prospective relocation to New Delhi and he not only turns far less categorical but also looks tickled.

"The Congress is about to face its worst defeat," Modi told The Telegraph, asked if the BJP's own tally would increase or deplete since 2007. "Yes, we will increase our seats but do look at the Congress's plight," he added during a conversation after releasing the BJP's election manifesto in an Ahmedabad hotel.

Asked if the BJP is pinning its strategy on the "troubles" that have beset the Congress, the Gujarat chief minister laughed and said: "What kind of a question is that? What else do you expect me to say? If you have a better formula for winning an election, please share it with me. Anyway, you… know that if there is a victor, there is also a loser. That's how the battlelines pan out."

To a question whether he will be around in Gandhinagar for a full five years to oversee the implementation of the promises rolled out in the manifesto, Modi said: "Whatever I had to say on it, I said it from there" and pointed to the dais from where he had addressed the media.

He smiled, appearing neither provoked nor peeved.

On the stage, faced with the same query, Modi had looked grim, folded his hands and fended off the question with a "thank you".

However, Modi replied to another question on whether this would be the last Assembly poll he would fight in Gujarat. "I am confident of winning this election. If I win for a third time in a row, I hope that the BJP would field me again in the next election."

Just 55 miles north of the venue from where Modi purveyed an impression that his third-time win was foregone, the picture did not look that sanguine for the BJP.

On the ground that belonged to the Agriculture Prices Marketing Commission in Viramgam (Ahmedabad district), some BJP workers criticised the chief minister for fielding the sitting MLA, Brachibhai Patel. Unlike in 2007, when nearly 60 per cent of the incumbent legislators were dropped, Modi this time played it safe and axed only less than a third of the 122.

Although a source close to him said the decision was taken after three "in-depth" surveys of each of the 182 constituencies that "revealed" that anti-incumbency did not affect a majority of the MLAs, the workers of Viramgam had another story to tell.

"The Congress is walking away with this seat because the MLA has done nothing. Modi's charisma cannot override people's anger against the MLA," a worker said.

Indeed, at the Ahmedabad headquarters of the BJP, there was a reluctant admission that Modi's "play-safe" tactic might gift the Congress 10 or 15 seats.

The Viramgam ground ' capacious enough to pack a crowd of 7,000 ' saw a turnout of about 4,000, causing a disappointed BJP manager to say: "Last time, every galli leading to the ground was choked with people. Clearly, the enthusiasm has waned."

Perhaps realising that many of his MLAs were nowhere as popular as he was and that he would have to shed extra sweat to retain or better his 2007 tally, Modi conflated his appeal for a vote for the candidate with an exhortation to achieve a larger end.

"When you enter a booth, see the ballot machine and spot the lotus symbol, pause for a minute and think that my vote will not only seal my candidate's future or the future of Viramgam, it will determine Gujarat's fate on December 20. You need a strong leader and a strong government in Gandhinagar," Modi said.

The "key" to who holds the key to victory or defeat lay in the "wisdom and maturity" of the voters, he added.

"When you leave your home for more than two weeks, the chances are that you will hand over the keys to a person you intrinsically trust. I have served you for 11 years. You know my strengths and weaknesses, you know how I function. Who will the Congress hand the key of Gujarat? There is a hidden agenda behind the Congress's reluctance to name the keeper of the kingdom. If the Congress captures the state, be sure there will be several claimants for our treasury that is overflowing," Modi said.

The Congress, he added, was "notorious" for going back on its promises. "The Congress in 2009 promised to scale down prices within 100 days. That didn't happen. It promised tickets to hundreds of aspirants for the past several months. It let most of them down and they were dedicated party workers. A party that betrays its own workers cannot be trusted to keep the people of Gujarat safe and secure," Modi said.

The listless audience sprang to life every now and then when the chief minister tore into the Congress.

Was that good enough to turn the tide in Viramgam? Not many thought so.