Veteran Indian journalist Vrinda Gopinath locked me in a car asked me some really tough questions en-route from Delhi to the World Economic Forum in Gurgaon last week. I am relieved to be safely back on UK soil – just!
Now, how in the world did Gujarat CM Narendra Modi turn from a “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) after the murderous Gujarat riots of 2002, to “Gujarat ka Sher” (Lion of Gujarat) and “Vikas Purush” (Man of Development), must be a question intriguing all the CM’s political adversaries, who must envy the media blitzkreig Modi has unleashed in the country and abroad. The answer lies with Modi’s Media Makeover Dream Team, a dedicated and dogged squad of Modi loyalists who range from traders, solicitors, media managers, BJP party workers, who have spawned a maze of media and social networks, from dozens of facebook and twitter accounts, outsourced television channels, kickstarted track two diplomacy channels and unleashed lobbyists, and embarked on shrewd media networking.
The latest media coup of the dream team was last fortnight when UK’s high commissioner met Modi in Gandhinagar, ending a 10-year boycott of the CM after the Gujarat riots. At the centre of the diplomatic coup stands MANOJ LADWA, a British Gujarati solicitor, who is a partner at MLS Chase Corp Advisory, a management consultancy firm that advises companies investing in India and Indian comanies going global.
The 39-year-old Ladwa was born and brought up in England, and he has been overactive as a businessman and political activist for over a decade. He was FICCI’s UK representative during BJP-led NDA’s regime in 2002-3; an influential spokesman of the RSS-affiliated Sewa International; he has organised Modi’s visit to Britain 10 years ago; he is at present the London convener of Europe India Chambers of Commerce; and the chair of the UK Labour Party Community Engagement & Empowerment Forum. He is a self-confessed Blairite, having joined the Labour Party 20 years ago. In an exclusive interview, the achingly modest Ladwa gives an account how Modi overcame his “demonic” image to catapult to the national stage and become a potential prime ministerial candidate. Extracts:
Q. How did Modi achieve this media feat from being called a murderer to being hailed as potential PM?
A. It’s the media who creates a Beast or Hero, but as far as I am concerned, at the core, Narendra Modi is the same man, in 2002, or today. He embarked on the road to development from the beginning and he has remained unshaken from that path, with the same quiet determination.
Modi is the only leader who knows that the world has moved on, it has changed. Indian politicians have always indulged in Punch and Judy politics – of shouting, abusing and screaming at each other. After 2002, with the back to back campaign of Modi’s demonisation, he could have shouted back too, but he stepped back and let his work do the speaking. Judge me by work, was his motto.
Q. But investigations have revealed Modi’s divisive politics where minorities have been discriminated in development schemes and forced into ghettos?
A. Yes, there is an issue of treatment of other communities but it is a disingenous media creation. So far, political parties have cuddled the minorities, but have their lives been transformed? They are still at the bottom of the heap.
Of course, it is good to say nice things, language is important, as a lawyer I accept that, but for how long can this go on? This “trust me” kind of politics has gone on for 60 years and more, but it’s time for the politics of equal opportunities.
Today, in Gujarat, there is 24/7 electricity all over, 86 per cent have tap water, so where is the discrimination?
Q. Yours is an equally disingenuous explanation! However, the question here is how did you systematically gloss the 2002 riot blot?
A. When 2002 happened, everyone said OMG, this is a carnage. But then people soon said, hang on, riots have happened in Gujarat since the 60s. So, what’s so unusual?
Q. Well, for the first time, riot cases were moved out of Gujarat because Modi’s government was seen to be doing nothing to book the killers?
A. All I am saying is that people want to move on with life. 1984 anti-Sikh riots also happened but there was no media glare as it is today.
I took it upon myself to see — how can we articulate a different story. I talked to people in India and UK, it seemed people wanted to move on. It is an inevitability of life. Of course, Narendra Modi is his best lobbyist, communicator. It is his vision of development that has changed the course of dialogue.
Q. How has the Modi brand been packaged?
A. In an election, it’s about winning votes and Modi has focussed on two important constituencies — women and the youth. What matters is not macho politics or an ideological war, but capturing the middle ground which Modi has done successfully. He has got the youth by offering them equal opportunities, and the women with the fruits of development, of bijli, pani, sadak. After all, development impacts women first. He has never used the caste card to woo the youth but has delievered and demonstrated that the idea of equal opportunities work.
Q. How can Modi appeal to the youths in Bhulandshahr or Patna, if he is a PM candidate? It hasn’t worked before?
A. Modi does not have to do anything, he has changed the game of national politics forever. For the last 10 years, there have only been two voices on Modi – development and progress; and demonisation. Tell me, does the latter matter any more today? The Modi Bachao side won over the Modi Hatao campaigners! In fact, every chief minister has realised that he/she can be re-elected only if there is development politics. That’s Moditva for you! Everyone is back to focussing on what matters to people — inclusiveness. Narendra Modi has never talked about haves and havenots, or pitted communities against each other, he has always spoken about the 6 crore Gujaratis, as one following.
Q. How did people like Lord Meghnad Desai who swore never to step into Gujarat, come rushing into Modi’s arms?
A. He was perhaps bored with the constant Modi-baiting that has been going on. When he realised that the Hate Modi propaganda was not washing locally and with the community that was most affected, he changed his mind.
Q. So did Lord Ghulam Noon, yet another detractor from Britain, succumb to this gloss?
A. After the 2007 poll, people like Noon realised this guy was not going to go away and that he was going to meet him. Many detractors like Noon believed that the politics of stand-off was not going to work and that only the politics of engagement delivers results. No businessman will pass off an opportunity.
Q. But the Modi propaganda team has made the most ridiculaous claims about investment in Gujarat going by reports?
A. It’s not about the Rs 100 that is invested, but what you do with it, it’s about productivity (!?) (ALSO SEE ALTGAZE STORY ON MODI’S MEDIA HOOPLA )
Q. Did Ratan Tata’s endorsement of Modi’s Gujarat make that turning point in adding the gloss?
A. Tatas and India Inc were in one voice to praise Modi, even risking the wrath of the Congress at the Centre.
Q. But the Congress at the Centre did protest when the US denied a visa to a democratically-elected leader. How did the UK Government come around after the 10-year boycott?
A. There were several goodwill ambassadors who actively navigated the UK High Commissioner’s visit to Gandhinagar from British Gujarati MPs to tycoons. Britain has been watching as Modi has visited China, Russia, Japan and Singapore, and was coming under tremendous pressure to come with some face-saving measure to end its self-imposed exile in Gujarat. There are 600,000 Gujaratis in the UK.
Q. So, was the Conservative-Lib Government wooing a votebank?
A. Look, the bottom line is, this man could be prime minister, let’s get to know him.
Q. What about the US? All it has said is that if Modi applies for a visa, it will go for due process?
A. The language has changed from denial to acceptance.
Q.When did you begin to engage with Modi?
A. I have been visiting Gujarat since the late 90s but I could not connect with any leader until Modi arrived. His language and rules of engagement were so different and appealing — the NaMo formula is about being decisive, about getting things done. I was born in Britain, but India is my motherland, and I’d like to straddle the two worlds. I visit India at least once a month. I want a strong, vibrant looking India, and I see in Narendra Modi a future of India that deserves a chance to be heard.