Amit Shah told a journalist "The PM does not need to answer" at the press conference yesterday that was attended by the Prime Minister.
Modi and Shah knew they were laying themselves open to mockery and memes but simply do not care if journalists (Modi appears to have zero respect for them) get new material for critiques.
The two-man BJP brains trust had this in mind with the press conference: move headlines away from their candidate Pragaya Thakur, whose ugliest public remark yet praised Mahatma Gandhi's assassin as a "desh bhakt". This line has been popular among bhakts and BJP WhatsApp groups I monitor for professional reasons. Pragaya Thakur's declaration was in my opinion a trial run and was immediately seconded by Anant Hedge, a Union Minister. The BJP's IT Cell Chief, Amit Malviya, had earlier tested the waters with tweets that amount to a defense of Nathuram Godse. Malviya recently deleted these tweets which date back to January 2015.
Modi and Shah thought they could ride out the outrage but the anger among even hard-core BJP workers, especially in Madhya Pradesh, where Pragya Thakuar's candidature in Bhopal has been hugely contentious, caught them by surprise.
"Project Godse" was shelved for another day.
Two points are important. Pragaya Thakur made a pro-forma avowal of regret, not an apology, the day she made the comment. And, was immediately echoed by a well-rehearsed chorus that included a union minister.
The backlash to the eulogy of Godse caught the Sangh by surprise. It also came right after the vandalising of the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during Amit Shah's road show in a pitched battle with the TMC. Nine seats in Bengal will go to the polls tomorrow in the seventh and last phase of the polls.
Modi did immediate damage control by saying to a channel (on which he had already done an interview) that he would never be able to forgive Pragaya Thakur from his heart. Shah who had been imperturbable the day Thakur made the comment immediately discovered a day later that he was actually angry and issued a show cause notice to the Godse-as-patriot gang. The disciplinary committee of the BJP is scheduled to take action ten days later (much after the results were in) against the errant members.
The last time the disciplinary committee acted was to expel Jaswant Singh for his book on Jinnah. That was 10 years ago.
The other point to consider on the press conference is this. Modi's real purpose, according to senior BJP leaders, was to fish for new allies from those parties considered "neutral" to both the Congress and the BJP. Hence the statement that the BJP would win 300 seats on its own, but was ready to accept new allies on board.
Modi's entire mien was conciliatory. He smiled and joked that he used to have tea in the party headquarters with journalists. Gone was the stern, strong "56-inch-chested" leader who barely ever cracked a smile. Modi even made a virtue of not answering a single question as a matter of deferring to "Adhayaksh-ji" (president).
Shah ran the show, but make no mistake, it was a two-step dance of partners who know each other inside out. Shah covered the extremist base enthused by Thakur's candidature by saying she would not be withdrawn despite the PM's publicly expressed anguish. Shah used Gandhi's language, who he kept referring to as "Bapu", saying Thakur was BJP's "satyagraha" against the congress for a coining the term "Hindu terror".
Sources say that 25 in-house surveys conducted by the BJP at huge expense have been inconclusive about the exact margin that the party will win. Hence, the projection of public confidence but also a signal to future allies that talks are welcome.
Both Modi and Shah know that if the BJP needs support, "neutral" parties such as the Biju Janata Dal of Navin Patnaik and the YSR Congress of Jagan Mohan Reddy would find it hard to deal with Modi and Shah. The party may have to find a leader who is less of a headliner to become the "Mukhauta" (mask).
Sonia Gandhi's outreach to the entire opposition, written about by me here, has a single axis: ally with us against Modi and Shah. The numbers will decide the takers for the Sonia formula.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has quickly changed the narrative to Shah and BJP assaulting Bengal pride, riffing on what Modi used to great effect in Gujarat with his constant invocation of "Gujarat Asmita" (pride).
Dialling down the arrogance and calling a truce on the "patriot games" at the press conference was for parties. The press and its questions were the last thing Modi and Shah cared about.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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