Will bypoll results buoy Modi to his political goal?

Like an aviator who makes the most of a tailwind, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is propelling himself towards what he sees as his political destiny. And on Wednesday, he got plenty of aeronautical aid from a string of political developments. First off, the results of the byelections - in Gujarat and elsewhere - have, going by the near-unanimous verdict of the media, given him much cause for rejoicing.

The Bharatiya Janata Party made a clean sweep of the two Lok Sabha and four Assembly seats in Gujarat to which byelections were held - in every case wresting the seats from the Congress, and by larger margins than in the December 2012 Assembly elections. Second, in Bihar, the JD(U) under Nitish Kumar - who has arguably been the most vocal critic within the NDA coalition of efforts to project Modi as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate - suffered the mortification of seeing his hand-picked candidate comprehensively trounced in an election that he had flagged as a referendum on JD(U) rule.

Byelection results in select pockets seldom lend themselves to analytical extrapolation to a pan-Indian landscape, but given the proximity of the general election, analysts have abandoned their customary caution and connected the disparate dots to read a clear political message from the verdict.

Narendra Modi received a warm embrace - and the sweet news of an imminent anointment - from Rajnath Singh on Wednesday.  Reuters

Narendra Modi received a warm embrace - and the sweet news of an imminent anointment - from Rajnath Singh on Wednesday. Reuters

In terms of optics too, Modi had a good day at the office. His opposition - at the Delhi meeting of Chief Ministers to discuss national security matters - to the establishment of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre - found  resonance among many other Chief Ministers (including from at least two Congress Chief Ministers). In television studios, however, the entire debate was framed, with a bit of over-the-top hyperbole, as a 'Modi-versus-Centre' debate, which can only help him in his effort to project himself  onto the larger national stage. Additionally, the fact that even Congress Chief Ministers find the "stupid" national security idea disquieting blunts the effort by the Congress to project Modi's and the BJP's opposition to it as motivated by partisan politics.

The clincher for Modi came during his meeting with BJP president Rajnath Singh, at which it became manifestly clear (even without it being said explicitly), that the party has more or less made up its mind to anoint Modi as the party's head of the election panel. According to media accounts, Rajnath Singh will likely make a formal announcement to that effect at the conclusion of the national executive meeting of the BJP late this week in Goa.

Invoking circuitous metaphorical rhetoric, Rajnath Singh noted that since Modi did not want to have lunch with him, "I offered the best fruits, including the sweetest grapes in town, so that he did not leave with a sour aftertaste."

The "sour aftertaste" was very likely an allusion to the white noise that has been generated in recent days by senior party leader LK Advani's comments about Modi, which were widely perceived as an articulation of Advani's effort to check Modi's meteoric rise within the party leadership in order to project himself or one of his political proteges as a more  acceptable candidate in the era of coalition governments.

And although Rajnath Singh's offer of "sweet fruits" may not quite mean that Modi has surmounted all intra-party hurdles to his becoming the party's candidate for prime ministership in 2014,  the planets seem to be aligning themselves in a pattern that is propitious to just such an outcome.

As The Telegraph observed, "although Modi's formal declaration as the party's prime ministerial candidate may wait a bit longer, the new mandate expected to be handed out in Goa will, for all intents and purposes, legitimise his national pre-eminence as the countdown for the next Lok Sabha election begins."

In fact, Modi appeared to have had a satisfactory meeting with Advani too.. Evidently, he learnt that while he was in Delhi, Advani had been trying to contact him - possibly to congratulate him on the Gujarate byelection results. Seizing the moment, he visited Advani at his residence, which effort served to convey the signal that the patriarch had been persuaded to back the party's rising star as well.

Even with Modi as its electoral mascot, it is far from clear that the BJP will win enough seats to have a reasonable shot at forming a government. But as political commentator Minhaz Merchant points out, Modi perhaps represents the BJP's best to get there. In that sense, particularly after the lessons from Wednesday's byelection results are digested, it seems likely that the party will bow to the inevitable. From there on, however, the outlook is pretty hazy.

Modi's ascension in the BJP leadership has triggered a revolution of rising expectations from party cadres and supporters, which quite honestly border on the hyperbolic. The reason for the political appeal that he commands among certain constituencies is easy to comprehend, but the over-the-top expectations of him are not. For now, Modi is being buoyed aloft on the tailwind of  favourable circumstances, but there may be a case to temper the heightened expectations of his capabilities in order to avert a revolution of rising frustration at a later date.