Modi holds his friends close, his enemies even closer

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi used “caste resentments” to “tighten his grip on power,” after his “autocratic leadership style” provoked consternation in the Bharatiya Janata Party and forced an expansion of his Cabinet in 2005, the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai reported.

The August 10, 2005 cable (38300: confidential; only partial extract accessible), which was issued under the name of Public Affairs Section Director Linda C. Cheatham days after the expansion, took a close look at its timing and the allocation of portfolios.

Mr. Modi's moves, the cable explained, were the result of a direction from BJP president Lal Krishna Advani following criticism from party members. According to the cable, “Modi consented under the condition that the BJP appoint a state party president loyal to him. In early June, Advani kept his part of the bargain when the BJP appointed Vajubhai Vala as Gujarat BJP president.”

The Gujarat Chief Minister made the most of the development, the cable said, explaining that he “ingeniously weakened his critics by only appearing to devolve some power to them and by securing pledges of loyalty.”

The cable noted: “Many contacts, including journalists Anosh Malekar and Uday Mahurkar as well as BJP official Pankaj Mudholkar, told us that none of the new ministers will have any significant policy-making clout or sizable budgets that can be diverted for political patronage. The newcomers received departments such as women and child welfare, employment guarantee and fisheries. The CM and his core supporters still control the most important portfolios, such as Home, Finance, Industry, Irrigation and Rural Development.”

“Modi timed the expansion of the cabinet,” the Mumbai Consulate cable pointed out “to take advantage of the absence of the leader of the rebels, former Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Patel is currently in the U.S., where his wife is undergoing medical treatment. Modi reportedly focused on two influential Patel supporters and enticed them to join his cabinet under conditions that Patel himself would probably never have supported.”

The Consulate's reading was that Mr. Modi appeared to “be using the cabinet expansion to change the power equation among castes.”

The cable elaborated: “Tensions between the sizeable, landowning and better-off Patel caste and … ‘Other Backward Castes' (OBC) have long simmered in Gujarat's politics. Modi belongs to a small and economically weak OBC group…Our contacts tell us nine of the 11 new cabinet members are from the OBC grouping. They are also drawn evenly from all regions of Gujarat. Having effectively manipulated religious strife to strengthen his power base during and after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Modi is now using caste/class resentments within Hinduism to tighten his grip, many of our contacts believe.”

The Mumbai Consulate surmised that the refusal of BJP MLA (and a VHP member) Govardhan Zhadapia to take the Cabinet posting offered to him, and the appointment of Purushottam Solanki, wanted by the Mumbai police for “extortion,” could potentially alienate both VHP and urban middle class voters.

However, the confidential cable concluded that “in a BJP beset by internal struggles, Mr. Modi's revival sets him up nicely to influence the king making when the time comes.” In fact, he seemed “stronger than at any time since the rebels took their opposition public” — indeed a “force to be reckoned with.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)