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Modi's spiritual potion to woo karmayogis

It was, vaguely, early November 2007. I sat in the chamber of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's principal secretary, K Kailashnathan, in Block No 1 of Sachivalaya. A just-published book was lying on his table, "Karmayog", authored by Modi. It was actually a collection of Modi's what seemed to many a babu erudite lectures at the annual bureaucratic conclave called Chintan Shibir. I asked Kailashnathan, whom I have always found a very reluctant man, whether I could have the book. The top Modi aide looked at me suspiciously, smiled, and after some bit of hesitation, forwarded the book to me. "No mischief, Rajiv", he remarked. Apparently, he thought, there can't be anything in the book which could trigger controversy during the Gujarat state assembly polls, which were just about a month away. The newsman in me led me to scan it from page to page, trying to find out if there was anything newsworthy.
The book's 5,000 copies were printed, but it wasn't distributed because of the electoral code of conduct. Top PSU, Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, was roped in to fund the book. And lo, I found something interesting, worth reporting. A colourful book carrying lovely photographs, on pages 48 and 49, Modi qualifies the Valmikis' centuries-old caste-based vocation - of cleaning up others' filth, including toilets - as "experience in spirituality"! Modi says, "I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation." He adds, "At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis') duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business."
I reported it, with quotes from Dalit activists, who obviously criticized Modi for calling Valmikis' so-called "hereditary job" as experience in spirituality. Out of curiosity, I decided call on BJP's senior-most Dalit leader, Fakirbhai Waghela. I read out from the portion on which I wanted his comment, without telling him who was the author. Desperately seeking a ticket to fight polls, Waghela angrily said, "Who the hell is this? Who is the wretched writer? How can he say all this?" Then I quietly dropped the name, and he sulked: "Please don't put me in trouble. Say, I have nothing to comment as I hadn't seen the book", which is what I did.
The news item was published in the Times of India sometime in mid-November 2007. Perhaps it went unnoticed. Busy in polls, Congress leaders didn't have time to see it. A few days later I again visited Kailashnathan, and he asked me what havoc I had created by writing the item. He wanted the book back. I replied there was "no havoc", and that "nobody has reacted in Gujarat", where the polls were on. But he protested, "In Tamil Nadu, its translation was published. Dalits burnt the CM's effigy." I expressed surprise, returned the book to him, and walked away. Later, I was told, the Gujarat information department, on instructions from Modi, withdrew the book from circulation. Before returning it I had scanned the controversial chapter which carried the spirituality remark, forwarding it to friends. Dalit activist-turned-politician Pravin Rashtrapal caught hold of a copy of the scan, and raised the matter in Rajya Sabha, calling Modi "anti-Dalit". This was almost a year later. Only when the matter was raised in the Rajya Sabha that Congress leaders woke up and approached me, asking me if I had a copy!
Five years have passed, and I am still at a loss. What prompted Modi to see spirituality in the menial work that Valmikis have been made to do for generations? Apparently, it was part of his effort to woo those whom he began calling "karmayogis" - mainly government servants - to his side. The book was called "Karmayog" and is mostly devoted to telling babus how working sincerely without thinking about the fruit of reward amounted to spirituality. In fact, through umpteen Chintan Shibirs for different level of government servants, which then were a regular affair, there was a concerted effort to woo the karmacharis to his side, so that they worked sincerely for his effort to develop a personality cult around him. The shibirs made me believe - and I got some support for my view from top IAS babus with whom I usually interact - that the karmacharis had been "mesmerized" by the cult that he has sought to develop around him, and in the 2012 Gujarat assembly polls they would certainly be on his side. Also, mostly manning the booths, they would surely "favour" the ruling party candidates. However, a recent interaction suggested that perhaps I was wrong.
Waiting for the state transport bus which takes government servants to Gandhinagar, discussion ensued among 10-odd state employees on who would win this time. One of them said "Congress" and smiled. He insisted, "I am not joking, boss. I don't know who will win, but you see things are not so simple. Look at the contrast - in Delhi, Congress punished those whom it found guilty of corruption, and here you don't even appoint Lokayuka." Another immediately agreed: "Yes, as if there are no corrupt ministers in the Modi government. We all know who all they are…" And they all laughed. A third one intervened to wonder why Nitin Gadkari was being protected despite so many charges of corruption. Then, one of them began to discuss the selection of candidates. And this is what he said: "Look at Congress. It has denied ticket to some big shots like Narhari Amin and Naresh Raval. They are half-a-dozen of them. Despite pressure, Congress high command didn't budge, as it knew they are not the right men. Even the threat to resign hasn't ruffle the leaders. And see the BJP. It is giving ticket to anyone who quits Congress and joins BJP." There was general agreement, with one of them remarking, "Modi appears to be afraid. He has given good bye to no-repeat theory."
The discussion continued, as the state transport bus hadn't yet come. The topic changed to price rise, a crucial issue on which the Congress is said to be on weak wicket. "They (BJP) appear to believe that they have no responsibility. The price of oil has skyrocketed, and oil millers are making huge profit", said one. Another added: "True, if they are so much bothered about price rise, why don't they reduce VAT on petrol and diesel? Other states have done it." Then, someone commented, "Look at their candidates. History sheeters and have are fighting polls on BJP ticket. Amit Shah himself is involved in fake encounters." Added another, "And, see how Modi is behaving. He approached our karmachari federation leader Vishnu Patel to fight on BJP ticket, promising him to drop court cases, including one on sedition, against him. Thankfully, other leaders stopped Vishnu Patel. Modi wanted create a rift among us. Is he so desperate?" Even as the conversation was on - and this surprised me most - nobody came to defend Modi, a strange factor in Ahmedabad, where I thought people were still violently pro-Modi.
Hearing the conversation quietly (nobody knew I was a journalist) I was shocked. I had believed that Modi would romp home with a big win. Even senior Congress leader Madhusudan Mistry, who claims to be very close to Sonia Gandhi, informally told this to me a few months back. He said how urban voters were a BJP mass base, which the Congress could never gain, and that while the BJP's tally starts at 60 because of the urban vote, the Congress begins at zero. I mentioned the conversation to a senior bureaucrat in Sachivalaya, and he laughed, saying, "I don't know. But this may be a reflection of anti-establishment nature of the government servants." So, had Modi's karmayogi campaign made no impact? He replied, "It is difficult to say. It seems it hasn't."


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