With Indian parliamentary elections barely 10 months away, hardline Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi took pole position in the race for the shadow prime minister’s position in the coalition led by his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Without being given that formal nomenclature, Modi became the first among equals in his party last weekend in rain-drenched Goa when party leaders appointed him chairman of the campaign committee.
But while this was a major solution for BJP, in the throes of a leadership crisis for several years, Modi’s elevation also soon became a problem. Less than 24 hours later, the party’s senior most leader, former deputy prime minister and party president on several occasions, Lal Krishna Advani, announced his resignation from all party posts. The act virtually set the cat among pigeons and the political clergy from the BJP’s parent organization – the non-party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – stepped in. Leaders of the RSS – who have traditionally wielded tremendous moral and political clout – urged Advani to backtrack on his decision. He duly obliged.
Despite the veteran’s rollback, it did not end Modi’s troubles and BJP’s woes. Its coalition partner for close to two decades – Janata Dal (U) – with whom it has run the state government in the crucial state of Bihar since 2005, has threatened to end the partnership with BJP because its leaders do not see eye to eye with Modi. The extreme Hindu nationalist leader also has a problem of acceptability with several other state leaders who run individual-centric political parties.
Does this mean that Modi has run out of steam even before the starting gun has been sounded? Do the events that followed the announcement in Goa mean that, despite the hype of burgeoning support, Modi’s political base remains extremely restricted to a handful of states drawn only from a few of communities that figure in the social coalition that India is?
A close scrutiny of India’s current political scenario would suggest that answers to both queries would be in the negative. For starters, the BJP leadership, while working out the compromise with Advani, insisted that there was no rolling back of Modi’s elevation despite pledging to take care of the elder leader’s concerns. In such a scenario, it becomes clear that Modi has been able to goad a majority of leaders from his party and its affiliates to play a high stakes game with him being the trump card.
The BJP, after having presided over the ruling coalition at the Centre for six years, lost the elections in 2004. In the parliamentary election held in 2009, the BJP’s electoral fortunes dipped further and it lost allies and dropped seats to reach the lowest ever tally in two decades. The only way the party can expect to buck the trend is by opting for some dramatic strategies – placing a polarizing person like Modi at the helm being the current strategy. The BJP appears prepared for the moment for a significant recasting of political alliances in India.
Modi’s personality is unsettling within his party and among present and potential allies because he breaks the existing consensual template of what the ideal political leader of India should be. The characteristics of the patron-politician of India were listed after independence under the leadership of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and comprised at least three significant features: a commitment to democracy, adherence to secularism and pursing policies of a welfare state.
Modi has in the years since becoming chief minister challenged all three premises. As head of government in the state and as person in charge of the state unit of the party, he has run the two in a top-down style. More often than not, other leaders in the party, ministers and officers in the government have been mere implementers of decisions taken personally by Modi with virtually no or little consultation. The conduct of the state government and the political assertions of Modi in the wake of the riots in 2002 have shown Modi to be totally opposed to the idea of secularism.
In recent years, despite projecting himself as a champion of growth, Modi has not expressed remorse for events in 2002 riots. Finally, Modi’s economic policy, which has come for great scrutiny in recent years and is termed as the Gujarat model, has no thought given to distribution of benefits. It is a policy that has so far made corporates and middle classes happy. Large sections of underprivileged are yet to receive any benefits of the policies.
Modi has given no indication of toning down his hardline and expects this to shake up Indian politics and give the BJP the best shot at governance. It remains to be seen if Modi is able to pursue this strategy and whether it succeeds or not will be known within the next 300 days.