NEW DELHI (TIP): Three days of rough political weather did not just wreck a 17-year-old BJP-JD(U) alliance, it also all but sealed the debate over Modi’s ascendancy in the BJP. Barely had Nitish Kumar finished a speech replete with derisive references to Modi on Sunday that the BJP brass was bombarded with messages and phone calls from the party rank and file. The message from below was unambiguous: The insult to the Gujarat CM shouldn’t be tolerated. A few senior leaders who demurred over the need to respond immediately felt the cadre’s pressure. The mismatch in moods was glaringly evident when at least two of the leaders, who are part of the grandly sounding “high command”, tried to reach out to Kumar just when the party rank and file was clamouring for a strong retaliation.
The tide was tough to hold off. Eventually, a statement vehemently debunking the charges leveled against Modi was considered by leaders gathered at Advani’s residence and BJP chief Rajnath Singh quickly ordered its release. Apart from consolidating the support for Modi in the sangh parivar, the Nitish Kumar episode also brought out the cracks in the BJP leadership over Modi. For, what happened over the weekend has implications for leaders like L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi, each seen by his or her admirers as having strong credentials for leading the BJP into the 2014 race. The BJP parliamentary board, which theoretically takes the final call on whom to project as PM candidate, appeared split over the issue. How serious is the split? Not so serious as to jeopardise Modi’s candidature, it would seem. Some senior leaders are uncomfortable with the prospect of being overtaken by the Gujarat CM, and to that extent the resistance to Modi has not disappeared, but they risk every possibility of getting overwhelmed by the counter tide. RSS, initially not so enamoured of Modi, seems to be fast coming around to align itself with the mood of the party workers.
The RSS chief hurt himself by seeking a second term for Nitin Gadkari even though the allegations against Gadkari were making him somewhat of a political liability. The weakening of the RSS boss’s authority has resulted in a decentralization of power within the Sangh and has created space for figures like Suresh Soni who are backing Modi. And seniors like Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha in the BJP, who appear ambiguous about Gujarat CM or are opposed to him, risk being sidelined by the current pro-Modi mood. The BJP seems aware that fighting the polls under Modi is not without risks — loss of allies, consolidation of Muslim vote against the party, hostility of liberal intelligentsia, and a ruthless scrutiny of the Gujarat model, to list the main ones. However, it is banking on his energetic espousal of effective governance, swift economic growth, jobs and a development-oriented agenda to attract middle India that BJP had lost to the Congress in 2004.
The task is not easy as BJP needs to cover a lot of ground and is hampered by geographical and social limits. As of now, BJP does not have a single MP from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Apart from Assam, the party has drawn a blank in the north east.
In states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, BJP’s numbers are already high. It can only look to improve in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi and Uttarakhand. It needs new partners in Haryana and Jharkhand. Karnataka seems a lost bastion while the Shiv Sena infighting has made Maharashtra shaky. Yet, the party cadre and now an increasing number of leaders are getting in a mood to swim or sink with Modi. After angry exchanges with JD(U), BJP leaders are looking to assess options, preparing for the inevitable break with JD(U). Bihar leaders who met BJP chief Rajnath Singh on Monday set the tone by congratulating him for the party’s stern rejoinder to Kumar.
Discussions are on to build an audacious campaign built around Modi who is poised to emerge as the clear successor to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L K Advani era. Powering BJP to 160 plus Lok Sabha seats will have to be followed by acquiring regional allies to take NDA past the 272 majority mark. Covering the last mile is not going to be easy. Yet, on balance, BJP finds Modi its best bet. Going to the polls under Modi may be risky but it is a risk worth taking because another dispiriting sub-par performance will put a serious question over the party’s future.