Why the BJP has no choice but to gamble on Modi

Like a whisper that grows in amplitude with its retelling, the political stirring within the BJP to name Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the party's Prime Ministerial candidate ahead of the 2014 election has acquired a certain momentum. Right after the Gujarat election results came in in December, lower-level party functionaries like Smriti Irani and RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay he gave public voice to the sentiment within the rank and file for the BJP to name Modi as its face of the 2014 campaign. At that time, however, that call did not have the stamp of authority of any high-profile leader in the BJP.

Since then, that failing has been remedied somewhat. Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha made perhaps the most forceful interjection over the weekend, calling upon the party to project Modi as its candidate, even at the risk of losing NDA allies like the JD(U). That party's leader Nitish Kumar has signalled on more than one occasion that he would likely vote with his feet if the BJP did not accommodate the JD(U)'s preference, born of its political calculations in Bihar, for anyone other than Modi.

And then on Tuesday, Ram Jethmalani, who remains notionally suspended from the party for breaching party discipline and opposing Nitin Gadkari's candidature for the party presidentship, too came out bat for Modi.  The Gujarat leader, said Jethmalani, is "100 percent secular" and would be the party's best candidate for Prime Ministership. He too virtually dared the JD(U) to walk out of the coalition if it could not live with the prospect of having Modi as the NDA candidate.

Modi's capacity to win big for the BJP outside of Gujarat is untested.

Modi's capacity to win big for the BJP outside of Gujarat is untested.

Now, Sinha and Jethmalani are not exactly political heavyweights, yet their interventions, coming so soon after they have 'won' a battle within the BJP by easing Gadkari out as party president, are not without significance either. And although no frontline leader of the party has as yet stepped up with a view on the matter, the course of political events is inexorably propelling the BJP towards a place where it will almost certainly be place its bets on Modi.

For one thing, the party is under pressure to project a leader - any leader - as its likely candidate for the Prime Ministership. The burden of that pressure has become greater particularly after the Congress virtually promoted Rahul Gandhi as its vice-president and virtually projected him as its candidate for 2014. Now, Rahul Gandhi himself has been offering a glimpse into his idea of 'leadership'. In an interaction with Internet evangelist Vincent Cerf on Tuesday (report here), he said that in his management manual, a good leader was "someone who creates the environment and lets others take the advantage... You sit quietly and watch and let others take the glory."

That sounds a lot like Rahul Gandhi prefers 'backseat driving' in the way Sonia Gandhi has been doing. Yet, the mere fact that the Congress has for now named him as its lead campaigner for 2014 means that the BJP can ill-afford to go into campaign mode without a face to represent it. A final decision would of course be left to the BJP parliamentary board, and - depending on the election results - on the other constituents of the NDA alliance - but at the first level, failure to name a candidate would have signalled pusillanimity of a high order.

Of course, the BJP has other potential contenders, including Sushma Swaraj and, to a lesser extent, Arun Jaitley. To NDA partners like the JD (U) who want to be seen to be "secular", either of them would be an acceptable candidate, not least because they meet their criterion of "anyone other than Modi".

As political commentators have observed, political alignments will be reconfigured after the elections based on how well the BJP and the rest of the existing NDA are able to capitalise on the mood of anti-incumbency that works against the Congress and the UPA. If the BJP gets within striking distance of 200 seats, say, even "secular-minded" allies like the JD(U), the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal will valiantly overcome their inhibitions and fall in line with the BJP's choice of candidates - even if it is Modi.

Yet, for the BJP to get to 200 seats is a bit of a tall order. As analyst Ashok Malik observed on a CNN-IBN panel discussion on Tuesday, the BJP is politically irrelevent in some 250 constituencies; the real contest for it is in some 300 seats, where it is directly pitted againt the Congress. For it to secure two-thirds of those seats, it has to capitalise on the manifest failings of the Congress and the UPA government.

In particular, the overarching impression of the Manmohan Singh government as corrupt, indecisive and weighed down by policy paralysis offers the BJP the chance to profit politically, particularly if it projects Modi, who is widely perceived (in the Gujarat context) as incorruptible,  forceful in his decision-making and who has in recent years demonstrated his effectiveness as "Gujarat's CEO" in steering development.

But the reason why Modi is still a bit of a gamble is that for all of Modi's pan-Indian popularity as reflected in national opinion polls, there is as yet no compelling evidence that he can win seats decisively for the BJP outside of  his home-turf. In Assembly elections in some other States where he has campaigned, he has proved less than spectacular; of course, the outcome of these elections were determined rather more by local considerations, and to that extent, his supporters would argue, it would be unfair to judge his national standing or acceptability on these provincial results. (But then, that's an argument that Rahul Gandhi's supporters too could make.)

The choice for the BJP, therefore, boils down to firing up its support base by opting for Modi - even at the risk of alienating some pre-election allies and taking a chance on his untested capacity to win big outside Gujarat - and playing it 'safe' at the  risk of losing the enthusiasm of its rank and file, who appear rather more enthused by the prospect of a Modi candidature.

But given that there is no compelling evidence that leaders like Sushma Swaraj or Arun Jaitley will be any better than Modi at winning pan-Indian support for the BJP any better than Modi can, the party will likely be compelled to 'gamble' on Modi - in the hope that he can get the party as close to the 200 mark as possible - and then allow political realignments to propel it to power.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2013 06:58 AM

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