The sudden clamour among allies of the BJP for discussions on whom to project as the common NDA candidate for prime ministership is understandable. But it is also a trap for both, BJP and allies. It cannot benefit either of them in the short run, and the current ambiguity is important.
Take the case of the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. The call for discussions is actually a ploy to send minorities the message that it will oppose Narendra Modi, if he becomes the BJP’s choice for PM. But the JD(U) can hardly want to rock the current coalition in the state which has yielded high dividends to both parties.
Nitish Kumar’s ambitions may be at variance with Modi’s, but neither will benefit from a rush to divorce. It makes sense for both partners to delay the inevitable. For both have to prepare for it.
Then we have had the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray seeking discussions with the BJP on the same subject. Uddhav has said, "We do not want the kind of confusion we had during the presidential elections about NDA’s candidate. BJP should initiate a discussion with allies so that there’s absolute clarity."
The confusion, if any, has always been at the Shiv Sena end. The truth is the Shiv Sena declined to go along with the BJP’s decision to vote against Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential election. If the Sena’s decision to back Pratibha Patil in 2007 on the ground that she was a Maharashtrian had some regional logic, the decision to break ranks with the BJP on Pranab was simply inexplicable. The only reason for Bal Thackeray’s decision would have been the need to send the BJP a message that he is his own boss.
Under Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena has been conscious that a BJP under Modi—with his own Hindu credentials—could run away with his clothes. Ashok Malik notes in an article in The Times of India today: "The Shiv Sena has spoken of Sushma Swaraj as a nominee. More than an affinity for the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, this reflects the concern that a Modi-led BJP could eat into the Sena's constituency in the Mumbai-Thane region. It is possible the BJP may then emerge as the senior partner in the alliance in Maharashtra. At least some of the opposition to Modi is born of the fear that he alone of the BJP's current crop of leaders has the potential to expand the party's geography."
The only ally who has not demurred at all about Modi is the Akali Dal. The Dal-BJP combine has been an all-weather alliance, given the solid Sikh-Hindu demographics that the alliance addresses in the Punjab electorate. To the Akalis, who are themselves a religion-based party, it makes no difference who runs the BJP. Modi is as welcome as anyone else.
For the BJP, the issue of when to unveil Modi as the party’s standard-bearer is not an easy one to decide. Unlike many columnists who believe this is all because of intra-party intrigue and internal opposition to Modi, the real concern is largely one of timing: naming him too early may be counter-productive, and naming him too late would not give him time to make a difference.
My guess is the right time would be around six months ahead of a scheduled May 2014 poll unless a political accident causes an election earlier.
For the BJP, it does not make any sense to avoid projecting Modi at all. This would be like refusing to play your trump card. However, projecting him too early would have the unintended consequence of allowing allies to dictate the agenda, even while precipitating a crisis in states such as Bihar, or even Maharashtra, where the BJP has to deal with two Senas – one led by Uddhav and the other by Raj Thackeray.
The dilemmas the BJP has to solve about Modi are thus the following:
One is the timing of the announcement, and the precise role he is to be given before the next poll.
Two, decisions on which allies to forsake, and which ones to keep. The real dilemmas relate to Maharashtra and Bihar, for elsewhere the BJP would largely have to go it alone. In Maharashtra, the best option would be a three-way seat-sharing deal with both Senas for the Lok Sabha poll. In Bihar, the BJP has to sacrifice the alliance and prepare for some loss of seats.
Three, even if the BJP were to make up its mind on exiting the Bihar alliance, an early announcement on Modi means making him vulnerable to more dirty tricks from the central government. A clearly announced Modi candidature would enable the Congress to start targeting him in every way – something it would not be able to do when election fever is at a higher pitch, as the electorate will see through the game.
Four, the long-term dilemma relates to the BJP-RSS link-up. The problem is more real for the RSS than the BJP, for the Sangh needs the BJP more than the other way round. The RSS knows that political parties wield more power than social organisations, and this is why it has been trying to inflict its choice of leader on the BJP. A BJP under Modi would be more powerful than a BJP under any other leader because Modi has a direct appeal to the electorate and the BJP cadre. This is what the Sangh fears most.
Five, Modi himself has to take a call on when he can partially delink from Gujarat. If he is projected as the PM candidate, he can’t simultaneously be full-time CM of Gujarat in practical terms. There may be no legal bar on being CM and campaigning for the party in national elections, but at the very least, he would have to anoint a No 2 in Gujarat while he becomes a largely absentee CM during the campaigning.
The best guess one can make is that Modi’s candidature will be announced around October, after the Delhi elections. That will give Modi a clear six months to get the BJP fighting fit.