Narendra Modi is a divisive figure. This has sometimes worked to his advantage and at other times to his disadvantage. Modi has passionate supporters who constitute a solid political base. He has also collected a large army of detractors who can see nothing positive in him.
This almost binary reaction is now becoming a problem for Modi, and could put his attempt to move to national stage after 2014 at risk. The recent attack on Modi by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has to be seen against this background. One part of it could be seen as a manifestation of an internal power struggle in the National Democratic Alliance while another part of the controversy raises genuine questions about the future of someone like Modi in a heterogeneous country such as India.
The Hindutva parties have struggled with this paradox for many decades: they have had to nurture their core base while reaching out to a wider section of Indians. There have been many battles on the way. The intellectual fathers of Hindutva —V.D. Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar—did not agree on many issues. The old Jana Sangh almost split wide open during the clash between Balraj Madhok on one side and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani on the other. The formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a platform of Gandhian socialism in 1980 did not amuse many senior leaders of the time. Even the massive Hindu mobilization by the Ayodhya movement failed to take the party to power and it had to tone down its passions so as to build alliances with other non-Congress parties in the 1990s.
A file photo of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
Kumar has pointed out that the Gujarat riots of 2002 encouraged many voters to shift to the Congress, in a way blaming the Gujarat chief minister for getting the United Progressive Alliance to power. Modi has several achievements as chief minister since then. He is already the darling of Indian industry. He has tried to reach out to Muslims. But Modi will eventually have to come to terms with the legacy of 2002 if he wishes to move to bigger things.
The BJP is at an interesting crossroads. The Vajpayee-Advani duo dominated the party for several decades and showed that they could run a government with skill. Their inevitable exit has left a huge vacuum with no leader of the same stature to step in. The situation is somewhat akin to the drift in the Congress during the Sitaram Kesri years.
Modi is one obvious choice to lead the BJP, but the harsh reality of 2002 as well as his vanity will likely restrict his ability to widen his appeal to a wider arc of Indians.
Is Narendra Modi fit to be the prime minister of India? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org