India: Battle lines drawn for Election 2014
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India: Battle lines drawn for Election 2014

The wheels of the great Indian electoral juggernaut have started moving in recent days. In the past two days, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its alliance partner for 18 years, Janata Dal (U), ended the partnership and have indulged in blame games and name-calling. A day later, the ruling Congress party put the final touches on its organisational team and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh re-jigged his ministry, probably for the last time before polls.

In a couple of action-packed days this month the BJP made its electoral move by placing the extreme Hindu nationalist leader and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at the helm of its campaign machinery. This resulted in two developments – the BJP getting further isolated and party veteran Lal Krishna Advani, feeling the pinch of complete marginalisation, attempting to queer the pitch for Modi.

On the face of it, in the coalition era a loss of an ally such as Janata Dal (U) should be a dampener in the run up to polls. This is especially true in Bihar because the BJP is unlikely to find a replacement for the former ally and the state is set for at least a three-way, split if not a four-way one. But the BJP leadership does not see the development as a loss because they factored the parting of ways with JD (U) when it chose to elevate Modi.

The party bosses concluded that BJP can draw new social groups and regain some of its old support base by anointing Modi who has a popular draw both as no-nonsense totalitarian and majoritarian leader, as well as someone who promises a new India in which communal conflict is just a side-show to urban middle classes. It is a different matter that several leaders led by Advani feel uncomfortable with the new strategy and would have preferred continuing the alliance with JD (U).

The reasons behind this have both a historical context and a contemporary one. Until the late 1980s, the BJP was a marginal party and in a decade emerged as the second largest political party by pursuing divisive Hindu nationalist politics. However, in mid-1990s the BJP moderated its extreme stance and projected Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its prime ministerial candidate because Advani had the image of being anti-Muslim and therefore could not draw allies into a coalition. Vajpayee became Prime Minister for six years and Advani could only be his deputy.

After the defeat of the BJP-led alliance in 2004 when Advani assumed leadership he moderated his position in the hope that he would be now considered more acceptable. But Modi remains as belligerent as he was in the aftermath of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Entering into the electoral arena with an unabashed leader as its electoral mascot is a new experience for leaders like Advani – thus the reservations.

It is too early to state if the tactics of the BJP are going to bear fruit. Modi feels that once the BJP has sufficient numbers of seats, allies will come and join the coalition to form a government. In one of his interviews with this writer, Modi had stressed that the key to the party’s success was to “increase its winnability.”

In his assessment, the BJP can substantially increase its seats from its low performance of 2009 when its tally dipped to the lowest in two decades, by pursuing a polarising policy. For the moment, the Congress and other political adversaries of the BJP are in a reactive mode. This was best evident in the lacklustre expansion of the union cabinet and the re-jigging of the party team. Modi is clearly setting the agenda for the elections and is on the way to emerging as the fulcrum. It is too early to say if this strategy will tilt the balance in favour of BJP and Modi, quite clearly the first mainstream anti-Nehruvian leader of India.