Gambling with Modi

They all think that the momentum is with Modi and for the BJP to take the Congress head-on, he should lead the campaign.

Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi would have learnt this week that when things are going your way, they tend to go all the way – until a strong counterforce applies the break. Modi could not have had a hand in the timing of the results of the nine byelections in four states – four Lok Sabha and five Assembly seats – but coming as they did just three days before the national executive of the BJP being held in Goa, they will give further ammunition to his supporters’ propaganda that Modi should be projected as the prime minister candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

 In the byelections, the BJP put up an impressive performance in Gujarat winning all the six seats, including two for Lok Sabha, earlier all held by the Congress, and in contrast, the Congress was able to win only one Assembly seat in Maharashtra. But on the flip side, the BJP had nothing to show outside Gujarat, and its ally, JD(U) suffered a humiliating defeat in a lone LS seat in Bihar.

These results are but a blip in the overall context of the coming Lok Sabha elections and there is still a huge question mark over Modi’s ability to garner votes outside his state. He did address four or five public meetings in support of BJP candidates during the Assembly elections in Karnataka last month, but could do little to the fortunes of a sinking ship. That would have been forgotten by now and the media hype surrounding his byelection victories will be used by his backers in the BJP to press in the Goa national executive to anoint Modi as the chief of the party’s campaign committee.

 Ever since Modi returned to power in Gujarat for the third consecutive term, a section of the party has been vociferously pitching for projecting him as a future prime minister. He too has been using every available forum to gloat about the ‘success story’ in Gujarat and his vision for India, while all the time taking a swipe at the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh and its ‘back-seat drivers’ Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Being an articulate, media-savvy person, he has made sure that he remains firmly in focus.

 But Modi has several odds to overcome before he reaches anywhere near realising his ambition. He is a controversial person in his own party, having several detractors. Party patriarch L K Advani is the most articulate of the lot, though by no means he is alone. Advani misses no opportunity to hit out at Modi and to project alternatives like Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as ‘better candidates’ for the party leadership.

Modi’s drawback

However, Modi has won over party president Rajnath Singh, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley and many others. Crucially, the RSS is also with him now, after being cold to Modi for a long time. They all think that the momentum is with Modi and if the BJP wants to take the Congress head-on in the coming Lok Sabha elections and emerge victorious, it can happen only with a charismatic leader like Modi at the helm. They also realise that the rank and file of the party, by and large, want Modi to lead the election campaign and galvanise the workers. Modi’s biggest drawback is that the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were killed, continue to haunt him and he is a ‘repulsive’ character to many existing and potential allies.

Though right now, the Congress is on the backfoot, mired in several mega scams and having lost allies like Trinamool Congress and the DMK, the projection of Modi by the BJP could dramatically alter the situation for the Congress, helping it to stitch together a new coalition after the 2014 elections.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is the strongest ally of the BJP in the NDA, has been a vocal critic of Modi and he has even warned several times that his party would consider quitting the NDA if the BJP were to project Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. Nitish’s stand is like manna from heaven for the Congress, which has tried to woo him to its side by deciding on a Rs 10,000 crore ‘special package’ for Bihar.

But the Maharajganj byelection result, which Lalu Prasad’s RJD won handsomely defeating the JD(U), would have sobered Nitish into thinking that he needs the BJP as much as the BJP needs him in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Congress is only a marginal player in Bihar and if he aligns with it, he will be paving the way for Lalu’s return. Besides, Nitish is running a coalition government with the BJP in Bihar – the JD(U) has 115 seats to the BJP’s 91 in the Bihar Assembly – and he could lose power if the BJP were to pull out of his government.

In the current Lok Sabha, the BJP has 115 seats to the Congress’ 205. In order to come back to power, it has to win more seats than the Congress and then scout for the allies. The BJP, most probably, will gamble with Modi as its election face and try to win about 30 to 40 seats more than the last time. Jayalalitha, Naveen Patnaik, Parkash Singh Badal and Jagan Mohan Reddy may not have a problem in accepting Modi’s leadership, but if the net needs to become wider to rope in more allies, L K Advani, at 86, could well be a consensus candidate. If that happens, Advani’s posturing over the last few months would not have been in vain.  

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