The BJP is not certain of the benefits of Modi leading the campaign while it is keenly aware of the pitfalls — a deeply polarized election where all other issues such as corruption will be set aside and the national discourse will be focused on Modi
Poornima Joshi Delhi
The principal opposition party in India is confronted with an existential dilemma — to keep chugging along on the Centrist-Right path that Atal Bihari Vajpayee steered them onto, or revert to the original communal and unambiguously Rightwing road with Narendra Modi in the driving seat to sail through the 2014 general election.
The argument in the latter’s favour is strong in that the sentiment in Hindutva quarters is high in favour of Modi. And there can be no doubt that the BJP has expanded its base nationally only on ‘emotive’ grounds, be it the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, the Uniform Civil Code or the abrogation of Article 370. The allies, the faithful will argue, will come once the BJP has mustered enough numbers in the Lok Sabha. After all, the party graduated from being a ‘political untouchable’ to gathering as many as 24 allies to form the NDA. But this became possible only after the BJP managed to win 182 seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.
“Secularism,” party insiders argue, “is a bogey which is erected only when the BJP does not have adequate numbers. Once we have crossed the 160-mark, you will see a lot of arguments being formulated not just in favour of the BJP but a BJP led by Modi.”
It is difficult to contradict the substance of this argument. After all, it was the same Nitish Kumar who presided over the ministry of railways when Coach Number S6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire at Godhra Station on February 27, 2002; an event described by Modi as the “action” that was to have the bloodied “reaction” in the mass murder, gangrapes and butchering of Muslims in Gujarat. Nitish did not deem it fit to order the statutory inquiry that would have settled the debate over whether it was actually the local Muslims who burnt the kar sevaks travelling in the train from Ayodhya. Neither did the Janata Dal (United) think the barbaric pogrom which followed was reason enough to quit the NDA at that time, or any time afterwards.
That clarifies the reasons for Nitish to suddenly start swearing allegiance to secularism and rule out accepting Modi as the PM candidate for the NDA. Nitish is wooing what he characterized as “all sections” (read Muslims) of the population. In this endeavour, he faces another strong contender for the Muslims’ support in Lalu Yadav, who, along with Ram Vilas Paswan, has wasted no time in telling the people of Bihar that Nitish’s rant against Modi earlier this month was a result of “infighting in the BJP”.
Lalu has his own reasons for underlining the fragility of Nitish’s claim on secularism, but the point that he makes about Nitish representing infighting in the BJP is not without basis. Nitish is clearly not unaware of the unease in the BJP top brass about an authoritarian leader like Modi taking over at the helm of affairs. The JD(U) has apparently communicated not just its veto against Modi but a preference for LK Advani as the NDA candidate for PM. There have been other ‘orchestrated’ voices backing Advani. Even Udhav Thackeray has underlined this tacit move, while being critical of Modi.
Herein lies atleast one explanation for the BJP’s reluctance to announce Modi as the party’s PM candidate. BJP president Rajnath Singh’s stock answer is that the “parliamentary board will decide at the appropriate time”. The parliamentary board is, of course, the appropriate body to make an announcement of this nature. But if there was no opposition to what is being portrayed by sections of the corporate media as an eventuality, the BJP would have, by now, made this announcement.
After all, Rajnath had clarified the BJP’s stand on the PM candidate issue in the case of Advani on May 2, 2007, a full two years before the tenure of the 14th Lok Sabha came to an end on May 18, 2009. Rajnath’s assertion, “After Atalji there is only Advaniji… Advaniji is the natural choice... It is he who should be PM…” followed a formal announcement to this effect by the BJP’s parliamentary board on December 10, 2007.
Clearly, the prime reason for the BJP being non-committal about Modi’s anointment is the central leadership’s reluctance. “In the parliamentary board, at least four of the 11 members — Advaniji, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley are aspirants for the top job. How do we take a decision in such a situation?” said a BJP insider.
Rajnath had clarified the BJP’s stand on the PM candidate issue in the case of Advani on May 2, 2007, a full two years before the 14th Lok Sabha came to an end on May 18, 2009. So, why this reluctance on Modi?
The explanation is not as simplistic as some central leaders vying for the same job. The issue is that the BJP is not quite certain of how well their only ace in the pack, Modi, will play out on the national scene. The BJP’s presence is negligible in as many as 152 Lok Sabha seats, spread out in Kerala (20), Andhra Pradesh (42), West Bengal (42), Tamil Nadu (39), the entire Northeast, with the exception of a couple of seats in Maharashtra and rapidly declining influence in Karnataka (28). It will undoubtedly do well in Rajasthan (25), Gujarat (26), Madhya Pradesh (29), Chhattisgarh (11) and Jharkhand (14). But, it is the Hindi heartland (especially Uttar Pradesh with 80 and Bihar with 40 Lok Sabha seats) where the BJP will have to dramatically improve its tally to get anywhere near its performance of 182 seats in 1999 when Vajpayee cobbled together a 24-party government.
Given Modi’s shyness in campaigning in the ongoing elections in Karnataka, his political presence is not all that pervasive as his supporters, powerful as they may be, would like everyone to believe.
The fact is that the BJP will suffer heavily if Nitish actually carries out his threat and walks out of the NDA before elections. Given its desperation to do well in the Hindi heartland, it would be a big loss to the BJP. So, the ace in the pack will be used, but carefully. From the indications so far, it seems that the BJP will use Modi’s advantages by appointing him as chairman of the party’s national campaign management committee without formally projecting him as PM candidate; a move that is expected to pacify Nitish.
This indicates that the BJP is not certain of the benefits of Modi leading the campaign while it is keenly aware of the pitfalls — a deeply polarized election where all other issues such as corruption and the Congress’s non-performance will be set aside and the national discourse will be focused on Modi.
The faithful will say that when you play a card, play it to the hilt, that is, name him PM candidate and see how many seats the BJP actually manages to win. Prudence will decree that breaking the NDA before the elections will spell bad tidings. It is an existential dilemma that the BJP has not yet solved.