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One party, many faces

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The contrast could not have been greater. On one side was the BJP's leading prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi in his designer kurta, presenting a corporatized vision of development Gujarat-style to students of a leading commerce college in Delhi. On the other side was the party's bare-bodied, dhoti-clad president, Rajnath Singh, taking a dip in the Ganga at Allahabad and then consorting with an assortment of bearded sadhus at a grand meeting of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad where he vowed to help build the Ram temple at Ayodhya.

The images didn't quite square up but they represent the first glimmers of a strategy for 2014 after months of confusion in the saffron camp on the vexed leadership issue. A party that has managed in the past to produce a different face for every occasion is once again experimenting with multiple mukhotas (masks) to shore up support from what it considers its core constituencies: the Hindutva vote and the urban middle classes.

The positioning by the two men emerging as the main pillars of the strategy, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi, is interesting. Modi is being presented as the modern face of the party, representing development and governance. His Delhi address was the first of a calibrated campaign to reach out to the urban middle classes, particularly the under-35 population which expressed vociferous disenchantment with the Congress during Anna's anti-corruption agitation and the recent anti-rape protests.

With the Gujarat model as his mantra, Modi is seen as the party's best bet to woo back an influential segment of voters the BJP lost to the Congress in 2009. Rajnath Singh's mandate, on the other hand, appears to be to set the parivar's house in order by reaching out to groups like the VHP, Bajrang Dal, etc. These are groups that contributed significantly to the BJP's rise in the 1990s but moved away in sheer disillusionment at being marginalized once the NDA came to power in 1998. In fact, the VHP actively refrained from campaigning for the BJP in both the 2004 and the 2009 polls.

Singh has hit the road running. One of his first moves after becoming party president was to meet with RSS and VHP leaders and reaffirm commitment to the Hindutva agenda. This week, he was in Allahabad for the VHP's mega gathering at the Kumbh mela where he spoke the same language again. It has been many years since a BJP president graced a major VHP meet and Singh's presence signals an attempt to reunite the saffron parivar for the challenges ahead.
Significantly, Modi kept away from the VHP meet to steer clear of sending mixed messages to the middle class voters he is trying to win over. Brand Modi today is Mr Development, not the Hindu Hriday Samrat of 2002, a title he was conferred after the Gujarat riots.

BJP leaders see no contradiction in the two-pronged strategy that is unfolding. They maintain that it's been done before successfully with Vajpayee and Advani as the two faces for different constituencies. Vajpayee was the magnet for the upper castes, the middle classes and allies. Advani was the charioteer of the Ram temple movement who kept the larger parivar united on the Hindutva slogan. Eventually, it was Vajpayee who was chosen as the PM candidate, not Advani. And this is an act Modi hopes to follow.

Those familiar with the thinking of the RSS maintain that the Sangh leadership is clear in its mind that Modi is the BJP's best bet. They may have their reservations about his unilateral style of functioning but they are aware that only he can enthuse the rank and file in the larger parivar. "The decision, " says a source, "was taken at last year's Mumbai conclave of the BJP when (former president) Nitin Gadkari was ordered to drop Sanjay Joshi from the National Executive at the behest of the RSS. That was the signal that Modi's star was rising. "

At the same time, these sources say that the RSS is no hurry for any announcement regarding Modi, whether as the BJP's PM candidate or as chairman of the election campaign committee. In fact, the BJP need not spell out Modi's exact role. The media attention he gets as a possible PM candidate as opposed to the Congress party's Rahul Gandhi (who is also an unstated PM candidate ) is doing the job for them, they feel.

For the moment, all attention is focused on housekeeping issues. There are factional rivalries to settle, old wounds to heal after years of bitter discord and a clear pecking order to establish. The BJP will have to spruce up its organization and put its best foot forward for the slew of elections coming up this year in which the party will face the Congress in a direct clash. It is vulnerable in Karnataka after former chief minister Yeddyurappa's rebellion while in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it could face an anti-incumbency problem after ten years in power.

But the real challenge for the BJP is to conquer new territories and expand the NDA with new allies so that it can have a shot at forming the next government. It remains to be seen whether Modi can prove to be an effective tool for this. His appeal outside Gujarat is untested. Projecting Modi will be a shot in the dark.

And then there is the problem of allies. Efforts are on to retain Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) in the NDA but whether the BJP can balance its internal compulsions with the demands of alliance politics remains to be seen.

The party has also been trying to woo Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress and maintain a channel of communication with Naveen Patnaik and the BJD. So far, neither has taken the bait. But as a BJP leader stressed, the game has begun.

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