Six reasons why Narendra Modi may never be PM

It maybe an unpalatable reality for the liberal left, but Godhra is now irrelevant to Modi's fortunes. There are, however, other compelling reasons why Modi will never become Prime Minister, or enjoy an extremely short tenure if he does.

hidden June 11, 2012 16:32:11 IST
Six reasons why Narendra Modi may never be PM

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

Every conversation about Narendra Modi turns inevitably to the Godhra riots. Has he dodged the bullet or remains forever tainted? The debate soon devolves into a pitched battle of the keyword: pseudo-secularists, neo-nazis, Rajiv Gandhi, communalism, jholawalas et al. All of the heat serving to obscure the obvious: Godhra is now irrelevant to Modi's fortunes.

It maybe an unpalatable reality for the liberal left, but most Indians view the events of 2002 as ancient history. They don't want to move on. They have, in fact, already moved on. But there are, however, six far more compelling reasons why Modi will never become Prime Minister, or enjoy an extremely short tenure if he does.

Man versus Party

If Modi were running for the highest office in the United States – where the candidate is all -- his prospects would be bright indeed. We are a parliamentary democracy, where the individual matters far less than the party. There are exceptions. A regional leader can start his or her own party a la Mamata, but it does not work at the national level. Or else one family can dominate a national party, but that requires the advantage of dynasty.

Any BJP candidate for the top post has to be a party man – and enjoy the unqualified backing of its political jeevan saathi, the RSS. Modi instead has made a career of alienating the leadership of both. He is the rare pracharak who rode the RSS coattails to power, but ruthlessly marginalised his own sponsors once in power. As former Gujarat chief minister Suresh Mehta tells Tehelka, “The RSS unit in Gujarat in toto is against him, from the prant pracharak to the lowest worker. Modi has broken the Sangh; broken the party. He has raised his own personal stake so high, he has decimated the party structures.” The local BJP organisations too have been rendered impotent and irrelevant.

Six reasons why Narendra Modi may never be PM

Much is made of Modi's megalomania, but a giant-sized ego is almost a requirement for a successful political career. AP

Despite the pomp and glory of the recent BJP meet, Modi's elevation was, at best, a grudging acknowledgement of his power by a party leadership beset by the TINA problem. As one RSS leader told Caravan: “Shivling mein bichhu baitha hai. Na usko haath se utaar sakte ho, na usko joota maar sakte ho.” (A scorpion is sitting on the Shivling, the holy phallus of Lord Shiva. It can neither be removed by hand nor killed with a shoe.)"

That's a sentiment undoubtedly shared by much of his party's leadership, from Gadkari to Advani, once Modi’s protector. It's hard to thrive in a parliamentary system when your own people don't like you very much. As one BJP leader quipped to Outlook magazine, even if Modi succeeds in projecting himself as the next PM, “rest assured, the BJP will defeat him”.

The petty I

Much is made of Modi's megalomania, but a giant-sized ego is almost a requirement for a successful political career. The real problem lies in a "scorched earth" policy of retribution that creates unnecessary enmity – most recently epitomised in the unseemly ouster of Sanjay Joshi. He had to be evicted from the party meet in Mumbai, prevented from taking the train to Delhi, and then summarily ousted from the party. It was NOT enough to win, his enemy had to be stripped and paraded in public.

But in insisting on his pound of flesh, Modi alienated everyone, including his party bosses who were now seen as cravenly submitting to his irrational demands. Whatever private satisfaction he gained from Joshi's humiliation was undone by its political costs – creating a giant public rift at a moment when an image of party unity was urgently required. (Joshi is not an exception, but part of an entrenched pattern in Modi's career – he most famously made sure that the crowds were kept away from a Vajpayee rally in his state to underline his power and score a political point.)

All politicians like to settle scores, but rarely at the cost of their – or their party's – political fortunes. And once he is in the national spotlight, such tantrums virtually assure Modi a never-ending stream of bad press, making the great man wannabe look small-minded and mean. For a man used to grand epithets – as Tehelka points out -- be they “mass murderer” or “Hindu Hriday Samrat," playing the BJP’s poster boy of pettiness is a singular downgrade.

Divide and fall

That Modi is polarising is now a cliché. But the old truism gained fresh strength in the wake of the Joshi brouhaha. He has now earned the dubious honour of being the one man who forced an unprecedented public rift in even the famously disciplined RSS leadership.

Modi evokes extreme emotions, and all other issues recede into the background once he comes into the picture. The debate turns into a battle over the merits of the man himself, which bodes ill for the BJP. As a Modi supporter notes, "The irony is that the party needs him, but can it really risk positioning him as the prime ministerial candidate for 2014? Doing this would immediately turn the election into a highly-polarised referendum on Modi rather than the UPA’s bad governance."

Modi truly inspires a loyal and formidable following, but at a price far too high to win a general election.

The playground bully

Modi can't play nicely with others. That works fine when his sandbox is limited to Gujarat — a world where his way IS the highway. But New Delhi is an entirely different ballgame. The man who inherited a state with a two-thirds BJP majority is ill-equipped to managing a fractious and precarious coalition with egos almost as outsized as his own. He can bully the BJP national enclave into falling in line on Sanjay Joshi, but as Prime Minister he will soon find out that a Jayalalithaa can out-sulk him any day.

The raj dharma of coalition politics, as Mamata drills into Manmohan Singh every other day, is about learning to win some and lose some. “Modi only thinks of winning – and winning all the time,” a former CM of Gujarat told Caravan magazine. In a way, Manmohan Singh has survived as long as he has, because he is quick to bend – though increasingly at the cost of being ineffectual. Modi may be every bit as impotent in New Delhi for the exactly the opposite reason. "The man is so intolerant and full of himself, how can anyone expect  other leaders to work under him!" a BJP leader told Outlook.

 The charm deficit

While a broad streak of authoritarianism is hardly a disadvantage in a nation that still worships Indira Gandhi, Indians like their uber-strong leaders served to them with a hearty helping of paternal benevolence, be it Indira or Vajpayee. The investment rates in Gujarat may be important to the urban middle class, but the average Indian is looking for a leader who inspires trust and affection.

Modi suffers from a charm deficit disorder that’s lethal for a politician in national retail politics. The Loh Purush has all the warmth of stainless steel. His cool detachment makes for bad television, and even his favourable media stories emphasise a technocratic competence and impersonal integrity. The often-touted fact that his mother still lives in a one room apartment may be evidence of his anti-nepotism, but it hardly makes for a "good son" story that can bring a tear to the eyes of his audience in, say, a village in Chikmagalur.

India is not Gujarat (or China).

Modi is lionised by a section of the middle class because as Vinod Jose points out in his profile in Caravan “he appears to prefer power to money, which is a particularly appealing proposition for voters who regard most politicians as corrupt, ineffective and weak.” He is the man who can get things done and has been able to deliver their dream state – one with minimal red tape, where a file goes through five people not 30, and the markers of progress are out there, ostentatiously displayed for everyone to see.

"But the problem for him is, Gujarat is not India,” a political commentator, sympathetic to Modi, tells Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka.

As Chaudhury notes, Gujarat is more industrialised, more urbanised, and more homogeneous than most other Indian states – and therefore more receptive to Modi's corporate Hindutva message. Even the Muslim community, (10 percent of the state) is largely Bohra and Memon, business communities that are amenable to working with Modi.

Modi's also been able to turn all criticism about Godhra into an attack on Gujarati asmita (pride). But it will be near impossible to repurpose the inevitable flak generated by the campaign trail as an attack on mera Bharat mahaan. Modi is not India.

For huge swathes of India, the dream is not a Shanghai-style GIFT city rising out of barren wastelands. And even those on the development bandwagon have their doubts. A businessman who admires Modi because “he has made Gujarat relatively corruption-free” and “there are better roads and infrastructure,” also adds “You have all that in China too. But would I want to live in China?”

A Modi at the helm is the wet dream of a certain section of middle-class India that is impatient with the snail’s pace of progress in a parliamentary democracy, and yearns for a no-nonsense strongman who will not pander to any vested interest. But that fantasy of Modi, the CEO-CM, does not make Modi, the CEO-PM, any more likely.

“Hand Modi a two-thirds Lok Sabha majority, control of all the ministries he wants, and he might be able to govern India firmly. That may not be the same thing as governing India well," muses Aakar Patel in Outlook.

But to put it differently, Modi will only be able to govern -- at all -- if he gets his party’s nomination and if he then delivers  a two-thirds Lok Sabha majority and if he then gets control of all the ministries he wants. Anything less, and he is likely never to govern at all — or not for very long.

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