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The BJP's Modi conundrum has resurfaced with the English mouthpiece of the RSS, Organiser, stoking the leadership issue in the wake of the party's dismal performance in the just concluded Uttar Pradesh assembly polls. An editorial last week in the publication made two significant observations that set the cat among the pigeons. One, it stressed the importance of having a recognisable and good leader to lead a party into an election. "More than the party, the leader, and more than the leader, his track record determines poll outcomes today, " it emphasised. Two, it heaped praise on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for "effective" governance and said the BJP needs more leaders like him.
The editorial has touched a raw nerve in the BJP. As the countdown to the next general election begins amid talk of an early poll, the party seems to be haunted once again by a question to which it doesn't seem to have a clear answer. Should Modi be the face of the party in 2014, or whenever the Lok Sabha polls take place?
The issue has been hanging fire ever since the BJP was trounced in the Advani versus Manmohan Singh face-off in the 2009 parliamentary polls. But after the Samajwadi Party's spectacular victory in UP on the back of Akhilesh Yadav's fresh-faced appeal, the BJP has realised it can no longer shy away from a decision.
Personalities, not parties, have become the flavour of Indian elections. And top leaders of the BJP acknowledge that an intense debate is raging in the party as well as the RSS on who should be anointed to lead the charge in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
Modi has never hidden his ambition to be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate sooner than later. The certificates of good governance sought from captains of Indian industry like Mukesh Ambani, the investment melas he holds regularly to attract foreign capital and NRI money and his stuttering attempts to make peace with the Muslim community in Gujarat through sadbhavana yatras are all part of an intense campaign for an image makeover to erase the stain of the 2002 communal violence and pitch him as a potential PM.
No leader has polarised opinion as sharply as Modi. No contender has created such deep rifts. It is indeed a vexed question. If the BJP looks within, Modi outstrips all other contenders by sheer force of personality, vision and organisational skills. But this is the era of coalition politics and if the BJP looks outside, at current and potential allies, Modi seems to be a nonstarter. The dilemma for the BJP is that it faces challenges on both fronts. It not only has to set its own house in order by recapturing an identity and strengthening the organisation, it also has to expand and enlarge its alliance by drawing in new partners to increase its national footprint.
Modi is the best man for the first task, but perhaps the last man for the second.
BJP circles, including those opposed to him, grudgingly concede that Modi is by far the most popular leader among the party's rank and file. "He energises and enthuses the cadre, " said one leader who did not want to be named. In fact, one of the reasons being ascribed for the party's debacle in UP is Modi's absence from the campaign. He stayed away as a mark of protest over the appointment of Sanjay Joshi (with who he has a running battle) to the state campaign committee. A section in the BJP believes that he would have galvanised the party organisation, and perhaps helped to improve the BJP's tally, had he toured the state. It's a moot point but the view is prevalent enough that a defensive leadership was forced to agree to discuss it during review meetings to analyse reasons for its UP defeat.
On the other hand, Modi's track record during the communal violence in Gujarat makes him unacceptable to allies who have to cater to large minority voters in their states. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's uneasy relationship with Modi is well recorded and Kumar sometimes goes overboard in opposing the Gujarat leader just to make a point to his Muslim voters. Potential allies like Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh all need minority votes in their states and there is realisation within the BJP that it would be difficult for them to stomach Modi. "If Modi can help us win 250 seats on our own, then he is the undisputed leader. But the question is: can he?" The BJP leader who said this was clear that the foremost task for the party is to strengthen the NDA and collect more allies. The BJP does not have the organisational spread at present to cross 150 seats and would have to depend on a good coalition to be a contender for power in the next Lok Sabha. A coalition leader would have to be a less contentious face and a more consensual figure. Arun Jaitley perhaps ? Or Sushma Swaraj? Modi's desperation to move to Delhi is evident. But he has only to look back at the history of his own party and the outcome of the Vajpayee-Advani tussle to read his future. Advani lost out to Vajpayee because of his hardline Hindutva image. Once the RSS and BJP realised in 1995 that they would not make it to government without allies, Vajpayee was brought out of forced retirement to put together a winning coalition. His softer, genial personality, unmarked by the Hindutva stamp, served as a magnet for potential partners. Had Hindutva generated a strong enough wave to propel the BJP to power on its own, the Advani story may have had a different ending. The jury is still out on Modi.
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