BJP grapples with a Hamletian dilemma: to Modi or not to Modi

The backlash against Narendra Modi - and particularly, the attempt within a schizophrenic BJP to project him as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014 - appears to be gathering momentum. First came the snark attack from senior leader LK Advani in his most recent blog post, which was as evocative for what it didn't say as for what it did. And then, the latest edition of the BJP's mouthpiece, Kamal Sandesh, pointedly picked on Modi as a man in a hurry.

Now, some of the BJP's allies are stepping up to give voice to their disquiet about Modi - evidently to pre-empt any attempt to project him as the prime ministerial candidate. The Janata Dal (United) led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has, predictably, been first off the blocks to sound a veiled warning to the BJP. A senior (unidentified) leader of the JD (U) told the Economic Times  that his party would break away from the NDA coalition led by the BJP if the latter opted for Modi as its candidate.

In words that conveyed no ambiguity, the leader said: "Count us out if the election is held under Modi's leadership."

The BJP remains conflicted about Narendra Modi. AFP

In response to the virtual warning notice, the BJP's leader in Bihar (and the State's Deputy Chief Minister) Sushil Modi told the newspaper that his party would take note of its alliance partner's sentiments when deciding on its prime ministerial candidate. The BJP, he conceded, could not take the decision unilaterally.

There is, of course, a history and a context to Nitish Kumar's long-standing opposition to Modi. On his home turf, Nitish Kumar is fighting for the "secular" vote along with the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. Thus far,  he has been able to walk the thin line - of staying within the BJP-led NDA and still pitching for the "secular" vote by dissociating himself and his party from Modi  (to the extent of not allowing him to campaign in Bihar). But that tightrope walk could fail if Modi is indeed the "General" who will lead the BJP charge in 2014.

Additionally, in the estimation of some analysts, Nitish Kumar fancies himself as an outsider compromise candidate in the event that the planets align themselves in a certain way after the elections. For now, however, that remains a distant and improbable dream, but his own perceived political aspiration rests on neutralising Modi's candidature at the earliest.

Thus far, no other alliance partner of the BJP has come out so vociferously against Modi's projection. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik have been actively coordinating with Modi on advancing the case for States' rights on several issues. They show no inhibition about being seen, along with Modi, as an emerging political axis of sorts.

Yet, it appears that sections of the BJP - and the RSS mothership - are beginning to weigh the cost-benefit equation of projecting Modi as the leader.

In fact, as Advani's veiled criticism and the Kamal Sandesh editorial reveal, perhaps the biggest hurdle to his ascendance may come from within the party.

The BJP in some ways is conflicted about Modi's perceived ascendance. Given the UPA's abysmal record in office - particularly, the corruption scandals under its watch and the mismanagement of the economy - there is a strong anti-cumbency factor that favours the Opposition whenever the next elections are held. The BJP, as the principal Opposition party, calculates that it can harvest the fruits of the UPA's folly by making the 2014 election a referendum on the UPA's misgovernance.

In the estimation of some of its leaders, however, that electoral calculation could be upset if Modi is projected as the prime ministerial candidate - for then, the campaign theme for 2014 may change. It will no longer be a vote on the UPA's record in office, but a referendum on the persona of Modi. Given that Modi remains an intensely polarising figure even a decade after the 2002 riots, the BJP would perhaps have as much to lose - in terms of squeamish "secular" allies - as it stands to gain by firing up its cadres, these analysts reason.

Under such circumstances, it would lose out on the chance to make the 2014 elections all about the UPA - and either be forced on the defensive (if it still courts the secular vote) or consciously opt for a polarising campaign.

Of course, there is one other constituency of voters out there - of "centrist", perhaps even "liberal", voters who are so frustrated by the UPA's  misgovernance that they are ready to give Modi a chance, even though they are equally wary of him.

(Indicatively, as an aside, actress and activist Gul Panag set off a Twitter storm yesterday with a post that said, cryptically, "NaMo for PM". But after facing a fierce backlash from her liberal-minded followers who were scandalised by her desertion and capitulation to "Modi-mania", she began hedging her comments. "I don't support NaMo out of choice. But out of frustration. And lack of an alternative," she clarified in another post.)

BJP strategists are now poring over constituency-wise voter numbers to assess whether a campaign centred around Modi would be a net plus or minus. Columnist Sheela Bhatt recently reported, citing "an informed BJP source", that the party calculates that "while Muslims would support the Congress overwhelmingly if Modi ascended the national stage," it would not come to much since, in the estimation of BJP strategists, the BJP and the Congress are not directly pitted against each other in most Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies (except in Uttar Pradesh).

In fact, the report adds, citing the unidentified leader, that BJP analysts believe that the party will gain some 15 percent seats in the event of a sharp polarisation of the vote in the 120 plus Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha seats.

Politics is a queer beast. In the end, it's all about numbers, of course, but behind those anodyne numbers are hundreds of millions of voters, each making individual choices based on their individual (even if imperfect) assessments of rights and wrongs. And from what we've seen over the years, the Indian voter can make a monkey out of even the most skilled game theorists' calculations. For now, it's fair to say, the BJP hasn't yet resolved its Hamletian dilemma: 'to Modi or not to Modi'.

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