By Amulya Ganguli
What is curious about the Gujarat elections is that although the outcome is not in doubt – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to win – there is an element of tension related to its success.
The reason is the speculation about Narendra Modi’s future. In this personality-centric battle, it is not enough for the BJP only to win; it has to secure more than 117 out of the 182 assembly seats, which was its tally in 2007.
If it crosses this number, then the conjectures about Modi’s prime ministerial ambition will be strengthened. But, if the party merely reaches the figure or, worse still, falls short, then the Gujarat strongman’s detractors in the BJP and outside will have a field day, claiming that his appeal has begun to fade.
Although, normally, 117 is a comfortable winning score, the scene in Gujarat is not a normal one. For a start, there is excessive hype about the chief minister to the exclusion of the party. However, since the central feature of this focus is the possibility of his emergence as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, he has to outrun his political rivals by a considerable distance.
Hence the tension, which was evident in Modi’s last-minute effort to play the Muslim card by inviting the well-known cricketer, Irfan Pathan, to be present by his side at a public rally. For a man who was wary of fielding a single Muslim candidate for the elections lest it annoyed his hard-core Hindu supporters, the courting of the cricketer betrayed a certain nervousness.
The uneasiness is explained by the fact that no one knows more than Modi about the restricted nature of his base. Both in Gujarat and the rest of the country, his appeal is confined primarily to the communal-minded Hindus of the urban middle class. The support which is invariably voiced for Modi in drawing room conversations is mainly from this group.
But those who are outside its ambit include liberal Hindus, the minorities – Muslims as well as Christians – and large sections of the backward castes and Dalits. Unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose engaging personality crossed political and regional barriers, Modi’s virtual equation of himself with Gujarat – any criticism of him is projected as an attack on the state’s ‘asmita’ (pride) – further restricts his appeal.
Moreover, by cultivating an aggressive personality, Narendra “Dabangg” Modi, as he was called in a television programme, may impress his close followers, but it is a disadvantage for the pan-Indian image of a potential prime minister, which requires an element of sophistication. Instead, Modi comes across as the grumpy head of a patriarchal household.
He has also undermined his own cause by the coarseness he displayed by describing Shashi Tharoor’s wife as a “Rs.50,000-crore girlfriend” for her supposed links to an Indian Premier League scandal before her marriage and by questioning Sonia Gandhi’s travel expenses for her medical treatment abroad.
It is no secret that the 2002 riots remain the main stumbling block where his ambitions are concerned. Modi himself realised this soon after riding on a communal wave to his 2002 victory when the BJP won 127 seats – its highest ever tally.
The realisation was evident in his abrupt switch from the communal atmosphere to the need for industrial progress.
Since he is not an economist known for his pro-development views, the transition from the anti-minority politics of a saffron ‘pracharak’ (preacher) to that of development smacks of an artificial ploy.
It is as much a cynical manoeuvre as his ‘sadbhavna’ fasts in aid of social harmony during which he refused to wear the headgear offered by Muslim clerics.
It is the distrust of his pretensions to have turned over a new leaf which remains a weapon in the hands of his opponents in the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Of them, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been the most vocal presumably because he knows that his appeal is much wider than Modi’s since it encompasses the minorities.
On the other hand, Modi’s use of the word, “mian”, in describing Congress leader Ahmed Patel as Ahmedmian when the customary Gujarat term is Ahmedbhai, showed that his communal instincts remain intact.
Hence, Nitish Kumar’s opposition to the BJP’s idea of naming the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate after the 2014 general elections since he suspects that the BJP will then spring Modi’s name on the coalition’s unwilling constituents. If the Bihar chief minister wants the issue to be clarified now, it is because he is aware that there is no way for the BJP to propose Modi at present since it will lead to the NDA’s disintegration and thereby hand over an electoral victory to the Congress on a platter.
Moreover, to avoid this possibility, those within the BJP who nurture prime ministerial aspirations themselves – the never-say-die octogenarian L.K. Advani and the eloquent Sushma Swaraj – will then throw their hats in the ring.
In a way, therefore, it is immaterial whether the BJP gets 117 seats or more, since any boost to Modi’s prospects of moving out of Gujarat will spell doom for the NDA.