Indians vote for parties, not individuals. And the last time Indians overwhelmingly voted for one party was in 1984 in that extraordinary election following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, giving a huge majority to the Congress. Since then, no party has secured a working majority on its own, and prime ministerial aspirants have been compromise candidates, whom most coalition partners will accept, and equally important, dislike least. There is no reason to think the next election—scheduled for 2014—will be any different.
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That’s worth recalling because of the emerging myth, that because on 12 September the Supreme Court “exonerated” Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi (it did no such thing), he is now free to pursue his national ambition, if that. Citing his economic track record, Modi’s many fans believe the time has come for him to move to the centre, and lead a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government. Modi hasn’t made such claims.
And yet, immediately after the Supreme Court verdict, Modi went on a three-day fast to promote amity and harmony—an odd choice, since by his own claim, Gujaratis have been living harmoniously and amicably for the last decade, except for a few troublesome days in early 2002 with which, of course, he had nothing to do and about which he doesn’t like being reminded.
The verdict hasn’t ended Modi’s legal problems, because it was not a ruling on Modi’s guilt or innocence. The riots of February-March 2002, following the burning of a compartment carrying Hindu kar sevaks, continue to cast a shadow over Modi.
In the decade since, prosperity has increased in Gujarat. Modi’s supporters eagerly mention the praise he routinely gets from business leaders for streamlining procedures, enabling quicker business decisions, and highlight the investment in social and physical infrastructure. With the BJP’s leadership unsure about who would lead the party—there is the eloquent Arun Jaitley, the feisty Sushma Swaraj, and the still-eager Lal Krishna Advani dusting off his Toyota to start a new rath yatra—Modi may feel his time has come, because of disenchantment with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. That a US diplomat calls him incorruptible in a memo released by Wikileaks adds to Modi’s stature for his fans, but the US still won’t issue him a visa. (That’s because of Modi’s poor record in protecting minority rights and religious freedom in Gujarat. In the same memo the same diplomat raises these concerns; a bristled Modi responds by complaining about the conduct of the US army in Abu Ghraib—as if anything connects the two, or as if one justifies the other).
Modi’s past matters, and those who think Modi can translate the undoubtedly passionate support of his fans into electoral success may be disappointed. Collective bliss, even if aided by the applause of tycoons and endorsement by The Economist, which likened Gujarat with Guangdong, doesn’t translate into an electoral majority. For that to happen, first, the BJP needs a majority of its own. Its share of the popular vote in 2009 was 18.8%, giving it 116 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. It needs to at least double that to come anywhere near forming a majority. The highest share the BJP has ever enjoyed was the year it formed the government in 1998—25.59%—but even then its share was less than the Congress at 25.82%.
Besides votes, it will need an acceptable prime ministerial candidate, a condition Atal Bihari Vajpayee fulfilled.
If Modi’s fans are vociferous, for his foes, he remains radioactive, and unless he can show that the BJP’s performance in 2014 is entirely his doing, other leaders will see him as a regional satrap. So, the BJP has to win, win big, on its own terms, and Modi has to show that he alone got those votes—more than the party has ever won, to get more seats than it has ever won. For that math to work, the BJP’s other leaders—and those outside, like Nitish Kumar—would have to rein in their ambitions.
And then remember this: Chief ministers have rarely made effective transitions from the state to the Centre. Of the 13 prime ministers, only five have been state chief ministers—Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda, and P.V. Narasimha Rao. Of them, only Rao completed his prime ministerial term. None necessarily had a great record as chief minister. Think also of chief ministers who were stalwarts in states—Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, Mohanlal Sukhadia in Rajasthan, Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Laloo Prasad in Bihar. None made the transition to the top in Delhi.
This means ruling the state and the Centre are different; that the record at the state has little bearing on potential at the Centre; and to succeed nationally, the candidate needs wide acceptance, an ability to compromise, and the skill of forming coalitions with those with whom he disagrees.
That’s not how Modi is usually described.
If Gujarat were really Guangdong, none of this would have mattered.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org