Modi as the Hero/Villain of 2007

If the Gujarat election results have sent tremors across the political spectrum, thrilling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and unnerving its opponents, the reason is the dour, some would say demonic, personality of the chief minister, Narendra Modi. The outcome is even being seen, therefore, as one of the most portentous events of 2007 since the hawkish Modi is now expected to emerge as a major force in the party and the country.

The process may take some time to fructify since former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani has already been selected by the BJP as its prime ministerial nominee. Indeed, the hurried announcement was interpreted as an attempt to pre-empt a possible incipient challenge from Modi. What the hasty response underlined was that the party, and the country, was entering a turbulent phase.

If the impact of Modi's success is more on the BJP than on the others, the reason is that the electoral verdict has introduced a new and ideologically potent factor in the party's succession struggle. With former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in virtual retirement and Advani in his early 80s, it is obvious that the BJP needs a new leader.

Given Modi's provincial background, he was never a serious contender till the latest polls. Now, he has suddenly leapfrogged into the front line, upsetting the ambitions of contenders like party chief Rajnath Singh, former chief M. Venkaiah Naidu, former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha and even Modi's friend, Arun Jaitley.

But the churning in the BJP's upper levels is not the only cause for fresh calculations. Even more significant is the party's need to come to terms with Modi's unapologetic anti-minority image which the BJP, as a party, has been trying to moderate at the national level.

As is known, ever since it put its pro-Hindu agenda on the back burner to facilitate the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising several 'secular' parties like the Janata Dal-United, the Biju Janata Dal, the Trinamool Congress, etc., the BJP has been trying to present a gentler, kinder face where the minorities are concerned.

Even Advani's praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah's 'secularism' during a visit to Pakistan in 2005 showed that he was trying to shed his hawkish image because of the realization that an uncompromising anti-minority stance will not work in a pluralistic country with large segments of Muslim population in several states.

Modi never cared for this line because of the low percentage of Muslims in Gujarat - between 10 and 12 percent. But the iteration of this attitude can be destabilising for the NDA, undermining Advani's efforts to be the prime minister. And yet, any toning down of his rhetoric by Modi will be seen as hypocritical.

The BJP is caught in a dilemma, therefore. It has a leader who is popular with the party's core group of supporters, but is not acceptable to its allies, some of who, like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United, did not allow Modi to campaign in the Bihar elections.

Only time will show how the BJP tackles this problem. But, for the present, it is on a high with Gujarat helping it to overcome the demoralizing effect of its defeat in Uttar Pradesh. However, if it loses in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, as pollsters predict, then some of the fizz will go out of its present elation.

The Congress, on the other hand, will have to await the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan results before it can recover its sangfroid. At the moment, the Gujarat outcome has had such a crushing effect on its morale that it must have given up the idea of opting for an early general election.

If it puts off the poll, then the chances of it clinching the nuclear deal in the near future will go for a six. The postponement may bring joy to the Left and enable the Congress to survive with its support till the scheduled time of the next general election in 2009, but the party will be seen to being led by its troublesome allies rather than leading them.

The signs of the Congress's weakening hold on the ruling coalition at the centre can already be seen in the meeting which took place between two erstwhile inveterate adversaries in Maharashtra - the Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray and union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The meeting followed the surfacing of dissent in the Congress-NCP alliance in the state, with former chief minister Narayan Rane voicing his displeasure with Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.

If the Congress has hit a low patch in its fortunes, the Left remains embroiled in its own troubles. There has been a rupture in the Left unity in its stronghold of West Bengal following political and administrative miscalculations during Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee's industrialisation drive.

Since the government could not anticipate the extent of peasant resistance, there was violence in places like Singur, where the Tatas are building a small cars factory, and on a much wider scale in Nandigram, where an 'invasion' by Marxist cadres to evict the resisting peasants caused a countrywide outcry.

In a way, the Left has never been on a weaker footing with even pro-communist intellectuals comparing Bhattacharjee with Modi. The difficulties of the Bhattacharjee government were compounded by its decision to send controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen out of Kolkata following a rowdy demonstration by a Muslim group.

While the 'secular' credentials of the Communists were dented as a result, Modi sprinkled salt on the Left's wounds by offering to host Taslima. In fact, she first flew from Kolkata to Jaipur in BJP-ruled Rajasthan before being provided a safe house in New Delhi by the central government.

If the Left has become perceptibly weak, like the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) hasn't quite been able to build on its phenomenal success in Uttar Pradesh, where it secured a majority in the assembly elections by floating an exceptional Dalit-Brahmin combine.

Since then, however, its forays into Maharashtra and Gujarat haven't been noticeably successful. In Gujarat, it couldn't win any seats, but undercut the Congress in 10. Besides, its leader Mayawati's focus is seemingly more on building statues of Dalit icons like B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram than on the state's development. By threatening to impose quotas in the private sector for the underprivileged, she has also scared away investors.

Yet, as Modi's success showed, his developmental efforts, which made Gujarat attain a 10.6 percent growth in the Tenth Plan period, played a considerable part in boosting his prospects along with the combative pro-Hindu subtext of his campaign. 

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)


More by :  Amulya Ganguli

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