While everybody assumes that Modi will win in Gujarat, there are two big imponderables ahead this time.
One, unlike 2007, the Congress is taking Modi on through economic populism, not Hindutva. The last time, Sonia Gandhi squandered the party’s chances by references to “maut ka saudagar”, and Modi feasted on this opportunity to fire up the Hindutva vote base. This time the Congress is playing it smart, by tossing up populist ideas like free housing for the poor, etc. Modi will find populism difficult to overcome since it will be posited against his pro-business image.
Two, thanks to larger dissensions within the BJP (the Keshubhai Patel revolt, etc), Modi has to make a stronger pitch among non-Patels to get his seats. This is why he is spending more time in the tribal areas — where the Congress gets a larger share.
Of the three possibilities — defeat, marginal victory, and a thumping win like 2007 — only defeat seems unlikely. Modi’s future, though, depends on a big win, since a marginal win will tie him down to Gujarat for some more time.
If Narendra Modi is Plan A for BJP after the Gujarat elections, the party needs to be clear that getting more seats under Modi is not the same as winning the 2014 elections. He can be the party’s long-term winner, if the idea is not to win and form a government in 2014, but to build a solid base for 2016, or 2019, depending on what kind of government comes to power in 2014.
For Modi to lead the BJP to a win in 2014, he will need 200 seats — something that is not quite in prospect right now. Without 200, he won’t attract allies — consider what Nitish Kumar is considering even now.
This means BJP needs Plan B for 2014. It means a leader who can be projected for 2014 if Modi falters.
The BJP should be grooming a potential leader who serves as an alternative to Narendra Modi no matter what Gujarat throws up.
Who could this be? Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley could be acceptable candidates to both allies and the party in the short run, but neither of them has an electoral base. They will be handicapped in taking good decisions that need wider popular support. In short, they will be no better than Manmohan Singh in terms of being able to push through reforms with allies or even within the party. But both are clear possibilities and they should be given the chance to build an image in the run-up to 2014.
For stronger leaders from the regional stables, the party could look at Shivraj Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh, but he has a state election coming up and will be preoccupied. So will Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh and Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan.
That leaves an interesting prospect: Sushil Modi, the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. It would be an interesting choice for Plan B, since it might checkmate Nitish Kumar. As someone who has been in alliance with Sushil Modi for more than seven years, Kumar may not like the prospect of his deputy becoming a national figure. But he cannot quite oppose him as a “communal” candidate. Moreover, how can he oppose a Bihari for the top job, and the possibility of getting special status for Bihar.
To win in 2014, the BJP needs to get its political message and branding right and also develop a “mukhauta” who can reach out to allies. It must have a Plan B to Narendra Modi.