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India's Modi seeks humble, tolerant new image after poll rout

NEW DELHI: It’s out with the flashy suit, in with religious tolerance for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking to soften his image after an electoral pounding in New Delhi and grumblings in his party about his top-down leadership style.

Abruptly ending a string of national and regional election victories, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was thrashed in the capital this month, a defeat many blamed on a perception that Modi was tacitly fanning Hindu extremists.

“The Delhi ​election results ended ​the party’s ​honeymoon period with a jolt,” a senior BJP leader in New Delhi said, asking not be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

“If we don’t start the damage control and make immediate corrections, defeat in other state elections is imminent.”

In the space of a week, Modi, a Hindu nationalist who rarely attends events organized by religious minorities, delivered a long-awaited speech about inter-faith tolerance to a Christian congregation.

Leaders of the hardline Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad associated with the BJP have cautioned members across India against making comments that “hurt Narendra Modi’s image”.

A saint-like bust of the prime minister was removed from a temple in his home state of Gujarat after he tweeted his disapproval, and a designer suit he wore to meet U.S. President Barack Obama is being auctioned for charity.

The navy blue outfit, embroidered with gold pinstripes bearing Modi’s name, was mocked by Modi’s opponents, and even the party faithful said it undermined the voter-friendly narrative of Modi’s humble beginnings as the son of a tea seller.

“Modi’s image as a son of a tea vendor was his trump card,” said a senior election campaign adviser to the party. “Voters admired his simplicity, but now he is viewed as a flashy leader.”

‘MISTAKE’

The day before the suit went on auction, Modi broke months of silence after a series of attacks on Christian institutions in New Delhi and vowed to protect all religious groups.

“Voters did not expect him to be silent after churches were attacked,” said the BJP leader. “We realize that it was a mistake.”

Urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu said the Delhi elections were a setback for the BJP and cause for introspection, but denied Modi had lost touch with voters.

“There is no change in their regard and admiration for Narendra Modi,” Naidu told Headlines Today television this week. “People love him.”

The day after Naidu spoke, senior BJP official Prodyut Bora quit. In his resignation letter to the party’s powerful president, Amit Shah, the rebel complained about the centralization of power in the prime minister’s office.

Bora, who set up the BJP unit that spread the party’s message through social media, said Modi’s leadership style was damaging democracy within the party.

People might soon forget that Modi’s monogramed pinstripe suit cost as much as a million rupees ($16,100), Bora told Reuters.

“But the increasing arrogance of top (party) leaders does not seem to be fading away,” he said.

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