When Narendra Damodardas Modi rose to take the oath of office for the fourth time at Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, with party colleagues and current and potential allies present in strength, he accomplished many feats at one ago. Apart from the rollcall of political leaders, all on one stage, it was biggest moment of personal triumph for Modi. No other leader in the BJP has been at a swearing-in for as many times in a row.
The list of attendees gave all a peep into the potential shape of a future NDA if Modi were to lead it at some point of time - Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa, INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, RPI President Ramdas Athavale and, most significantly, the Thackeray cousins Uddhav and Raj. Bihar CM and JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar, as expected, was not there. The message that Modi sent out seemed to be clear: there could be life beyond Nitish Kumar for the NDA.
At today's swearing in, Modi clearly established himself as the first among equals in the BJP, whether or not there is an official announcement from the party to this effect. The internal message in the party was clear: if you are counted as somebody within the organisational structure, you had to be there at Sardar Patel stadium, Ahmedabad, on Wednesday.
How you got there, whether by protocol, invite or self-propelled zeal, did not matter. He is surely the strongest mass leader the BJP has ever had. He has grown taller than the party itself. Senior BJP leader and Gandhinagar MP LK Advani says that the elders and the family should feel happy that a younger member has added to the family's accomplishments.
His relations with the some of the senior leaders - considered to be mutually suspicious - have lately improved. They were all seen on the dais, like a close-knit family, proudly celebrating a member's achievements. There was also a grudging acknowledgement that Modi had automatically moved up some notches in the ladder, without their asking or helping hand.
That was clearly reflected when Modi got onto to the podium with everyone sitting in their designated places. He spent a moment or two with each one while walking through the front rows in accepting their greetings.
On similar occasions in the past, separate stages were made for the dignitaries present to separate them from the dais where the governor would administer the oath of office. But Modi chose to have only one stage, with him obviously in the middle as per the official protocol, flanked by his present and future colleagues.
In the short term, Modi’s advancement in the national scene could be detrimental to BJP President Nitin Gadkari. Given RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s unflinching support, Gadkari is all set to be renominated to the post for a second successive term, but the fact remains that if Modi enters the national arena, he wants a clear mandate to decide on his team and the playing eleven. Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley has already made it clear to the RSS and those who would matter in the party that if Modi is made the leader, he would not accept packing the organisation with his challengers.
Given the dynamics of coalition politics, the BJP's next prime ministerial candidate will also have to be someone who will bring the maximum number of allies. The presence of Jayalalithaa for the second time, in 2007 and now, the two Thackeray cousins, INLD chief Chautala, who was treated badly by the BJP in the past, the RPI's Athavale and Akali strongman Badal is thus a Modi statement of intent. It is an accepted fact in the party that no one other than Modi can bring Jayalalithaa to the NDA fold. For Modi, it would be a big plus if he can bring both the Thackeray cousins to fight under the NDA banner.
The continued resistance of Nitish Kumar - he didn't even extend the courtesy of greeting Modi on his victory - is certainly a cause for concern. But a section of BJP leaders accepts a break with Nitish Kumar as inevitable before or after the next general elections. A JD(U) leader and close aide of Nitish Kumar told Firstpost that the latter's decision to not greet Modi was consistent with his stated position.
More so, it was also a kind of tit for tat. Modi had not greeted Nitish on his second victory in Bihar. For the JD(U) brass, it didn’t matter since shortly before the Bihar elections, Nitish had made it a condition that Modi would not campaign for the BJP in Bihar. That yielded electoral benefits to the JD(U) in the form of Muslim votes.
Lately, Nitish Kumar’s position has been somewhat weakened from the popular high of two years ago. Modi seems to have noted this. The other Modi in the BJP, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, was not in the list of invitees for he was seen to be too dependent and in awe of Nitish Kumar. Instead, he invited Bihar BJP chief CP Thakur and the likes of Rameshwar Chaurasia, MLA, a known Modi cheerleader, to the swearing in.
Modi's next challenge will start in the coming months when another round of assembly elections begins. The last time he had launched the BJP's campaign in Karnataka for BS Yeddyurappa. With Yeddyurappa exiting the party, the BJP is on slippery ground. If the BJP retains its hold in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the wins will be notched to Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan.
Rajasthan may thus be next on Modi's sights. The presence and prominence given to former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is interesting in this regard. She is considered a good crowd-puller. She is one of those leaders in the BJP who rely more on personal charisma than on RSS backing. Rajasthan is going to the polls in 2013 and the BJP is expected to put up a very strong challenge to the Congress government there. It is not clear if Modi hopes to be a star campaigner in Rajasthan, but the people-to-people interaction between Rajasthan and Gujarat is substantially higher. Modi can also help build bridges for Raje with the RSS.
Tomorrow, Modi will be in Delhi to attend a meeting of the National Development Council (NDC). The last time he was here, his informal grouping with Jayalalithaa and Odisha CM Navin Patnaik made headlines. This time around the government is already preparing a counter to their coming together against the centre.
One should expect sparks to fly.