FOR SOME months now, there has been a lazy perception in New Delhi’s political circles that the 2014 election will be a Disneyland ride for the Third Front. Various regional parties and chieftains, it has been argued, will dominate the election as the two national parties inexorably decline. A non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister will emerge, and a mad and crazy coalition will run India, perhaps run it to the ground.
Exactly what that prediction is based on is difficult to say. It is apparent, the UPA government has been in some trouble since 2009 and the Congress is widely expected to drop down from the 206 seats it won in the previous Lok Sabha election. Equally, the BJP hasn’t quite sorted out its wrenching post-2004 generational change. This has been enough for some people to write off both parties, conclude they will not be able to redeem themselves and will only wait, like rabbits transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming car, to be steamrolled by smaller regional parties.
It is entirely possible this prognosis will play itself out, like some self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the verdict from Gujarat on 20 December offers the hope of a tantalising alternative. Narendra Modi’s big victory in the western state promises — or threatens, especially in the context of his in-house saboteurs and doubters — to rewrite equations, not just for the BJP but also for the Congress, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha contest that is only 15 months away.
It suggests the alluring idea of a presidential-style contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. More than that, it gives both parties the makings of a coherent national appeal that no regional party can match.
Of course, much of that is getting ahead of the story. It presumes, for instance, that Modi’s stature in the party, and his incremental appeal that now stretches beyond the BJP’s own popularity, in not just Gujarat but in much of the geography and demographic constituency that could vote for the party, would be patently obvious to the RSS, the Delhi-based leadership of the BJP and the bureaucracy at 11 Ashoka Road. It presumes the cry, almost the yearning, for Modi in the party rank and file, among the secondand third-rung functionaries of the BJP, will become an irresistible force.
This past week, a retired Indian diplomat told this writer, “I have never liked the BJP, but I’m so fed up I want a Modi government. Not a BJP government, I still don’t like the party… but a Modi government.” This was anguished speaking, frustration at the poor performance of the UPA government, and despair at the policy paralysis and incoherence in New Delhi. It also represented conditions that are more fertile for Modi than ever before.
The victory in the Assembly election would appear to be the perfect stepping stone for the strongman from Gandhinagar. The disappointment with the UPA government, and the success in an election campaign that focussed on development and economic aspiration, and not any polarising issue, would seem the perfect excuse for the Indian establishment — especially the economic and strategic establishment — to embrace him.
The scenario described above would be the dream for a Modi adherent — easy, smooth and free flowing. Unfortunately, reality is a trifle more complex. As such, scenario-building needs to come with a few important caveats. In the case of Modi, there are internal as well as external caveats. These caveats offer challenges to the man and merit examination.
THE BJP today rests on a tripod. There is the RSS and its proxies; the old guard still gathered around LK Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence in the capital; and then there are Modi and broadly the “politicals” in the party who are drawn to him. Of these three groups, the Advani camp is in clear decline, though it can still propel some fairly noisy media campaigns. The RSS wing, symbolised by BJP president Nitin Gadkari, controls the party machinery. The Modi corner is the one with the electricity.
How will these competing camps negotiate their way to a settlement? How and at what point will the RSS and Modi come to a halfway house? At its recent conclave in Chennai, a vast majority of the RSS senior leadership was convinced that Modi was the BJP’s face for 2014. Even so, not everybody was willing to give him a free pass. In January 2013, the BJP needs to find itself a new president. Will the RSS impose yet another Nagpur favourite who may not be appropriate? Or will Modi be able to get someone he is comfortable with? The answer will tell us a lot.
There is also an external dimension to the Modi choice. If — or perhaps when — the BJP makes Modi its mascot for the Lok Sabha election, it will essentially be putting an end to pre-poll expansion of the NDA. That apart, it will be risking the departure of the JD(U) from the alliance.
Would the risk be worth it? The party may calculate that going into the election without a leader and as part of a larger NDA will give it no real authority in a potential coalition, and allow it to add maybe 20 or 25 seats to its current Lok Sabha tally of 116. In contrast, Modi could take the BJP to a much higher figure and depending on just how high that figure is, attract post-election allies.
The Modi choice is tempting. It could help the party harness the anti-incumbency (against Lucknow and New Delhi) in the urban centres of Uttar Pradesh. It could help the party consolidate the urban and upper-caste vote in Bihar and with luck finish second to a JD(U) that fights alone and collects the Muslim, Kurmi-MBC and Mahadalit votes, admits a Nitish Kumar aide.
In Bengaluru, the BJP won 17 of 28 Assembly constituencies in 2008 and all three Lok Sabha seats the following year. A recent opinion poll forecast the party would win only 8-11 of those 28 seats now. For that downbeat mood to be reversed and for fence-sitting voters to be won over, the party needs to find a tonic. Modi seems the only one on offer.
A MODI-LED BJP would excite urban India, in the big cities and the smaller towns that are traditional BJP territory, and that backed the party overwhelmingly in the 1990s but swung to the Congress in 2009. Economic pessimism and the general crumbling of UPA-2 have meant these voters are up for grabs.
Paradoxically, a Modi candidature would lead to an inevitable counter-mobilisation and serve to bolster the Congress and Rahul, almost certain to be the face of his party’s campaign. The Congress will seek to gather Muslims, who remain deeply hostile to Modi outside Gujarat, as well as groups such as the rural poor, targeted by the UPA government’s welfare programmes. In states such as Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, the Congress could argue that it, and not a regional party, is best placed to take on the BJP, and hope Modi sceptics will buy that.
Two competing underdog narratives will be evident in this situation. Modi will present himself as the man from nowhere who is challenging the princeling. On the other hand, the Congress will pitch itself as a party of the have-nots taking on a party of middle-class majoritarianism.
It will make for a compelling election because the parties will start off with a solid base. True, they will have to build on that base to actually come to power. At its starting point, their binary contest will leave many segments — such as the middle farmers of western Uttar Pradesh, to take a random example — undecided. It will be up to Modi and Rahul to woo them.
Ironically, either candidate will know the loser will probably still control his party and still be battle-ready for another round in five years. Suddenly, just suddenly, the national party could have life breathed into it. Far from being the day before the world ended, 20 December has led us to a universe pregnant with possibilities.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.