Ending months of speculation (and presumably palace intrigue), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s principal opposition party, finally took the plunge and shined the light, as it were, on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
For the record, Modi has been re-inducted into the central Parliamentary board—the BJP’s top decision making body—as part of the changes initiated by the newly appointed party president Rajnath Singh. He last served on the board six years ago, before being ejected, ironically, by Singh during his earlier stewardship of the party.
But given that Modi is the only serving BJP chief minister to be extended this honour, and the ongoing clamour, albeit calibrated, that he be named as the prime ministerial candidate ahead of the next general election—which could well happen this year if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) continues to self-destruct—it is more than apparent that Modi has been elevated. Evidently, he has moved a step closer to becoming the party’s lead campaigner and its potential prime ministerial candidate, provided of course the BJP-led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is able to drum up the numbers.
This is indeed a turning point, for Modi, the BJP and the national polity. Given the personality of the Gujarat chief minister, he normally evokes only extreme responses: love him or hate him. The guile with which Modi has managed his politics—he has often used the hate to his advantage—showing up his critics as a case of sour grapes and of unfairly targeting him, a refrain that has only fed the favourable image, particularly among urban female and youth voters, that he has assiduously created over the past five years.
For Modi there is no turning back, no plan B that will hold out a sanctuary of being the prima donna in state politics. And, unlike in the case of Gujarat, where he could afford to be the be-all and end-all, the national arena will entail a give and take. So the first big test for Modi will be how he would manage the critics, while he has no doubt silenced them for now. The chief minister, the astute politician that he is, will surely be aware of the challenge.
What will aid him though (very much in the mould of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi) is the ability to look from inside to the outside, where he is part of the problem as well as the solution. This is what gives him the ability to touch upon hot-button issues like inflation, joblessness and failed aspirations of the youth to connect to the electorate.
It will be interesting to see how the Congress party deals with Modi’s elevation; it will undoubtedly be the key. From the initial response of party leaders to the news of Modi’s elevation, it seems to be one of dismissal and a trenchant criticism of the leader. It would be a big mistake if the country’s oldest political party made this a referendum on Modi; it is something they have tried in Gujarat in the last three elections and lost convincingly on each occasion. Agreed, Gujarat is different and does not reflect India, which is so much more complex and heterogeneous, but the overall context facing the country going into the next general election favours Modi.
Rising inflation, especially food inflation, inability of the economy to create adequate number of jobs (while 1 million join the workforce every month, less than 20,000 a month manage to land a job), creeping communalization, especially in Uttar Pradesh, and the visible governance vacuum, have provided a tailor-made situation for Modi to exploit. (Previously elaborated by Capital Calculus)
So, making the next general election about Modi would be a tactical mistake and playing into the hands of the wily chief minister. All the more as the next general election will be won or lost in Uttar Pradesh that elects 80 members to the Lok Sabha. Given the largely northern India footprint of the BJP, it has done well in Uttar Pradesh to take a shy at forming the next government. At present, the kamikaze actions of the Samajwadi Party (akin to what the UPA did after winning a sensational mandate for a second term in 2009) have opened the door for its opponents to exploit. Logically, the Congress party should have gained, especially in winning over the rapidly alienating Muslim voters, but this doesn’t seem to be happening. By making Modi the subject of the campaign, the Congress runs the risk of polarizing the vote banks—thereby neutralizing the power of the Muslim votes—and elevating his status among voters. At the same time, it would be difficult for the Congress to avoid addressing the Modi factor. The challenge, evidently, would be in going about it in a tactical manner while avoiding focus on its own weak spots, especially with respect to the governance record.
It is still early days yet. Elections are eventually won and lost in the voting booth, regardless of what political punditry suggests. But at the least, the country is poised to witness a new phase, whether for the good or bad, of Indian politics.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com