Stage Set for Modi’s National Ambitions

Does return to power in Gujarat really spell an entry onto the national political stage for the highly controversial Narendra Modi? It was clear from day one that prospects of defeating the BJP in Gujarat, that too under Modi’s command, was not an easy task for the Congress.

From his angle and that of his personal supporters, Modi’s next agenda is to join the race as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate during 2014 parliamentary elections. Yet, if he expects this to be a cakewalk for him, that too because of Gujarat victory, Modi’s calculations cannot be viewed as politically correct.

 Modi’s success in Gujarat rests on this state being a strong political base for him and his party workers. He cannot make the same claim for the rest of the country and for the BJP’s allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In Bihar, Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-United) did not allow Modi to campaign for him during the assembly elections. Kumar’s success in 2005 and return to power in 2010 rests on his own party’s credentials, for which Modi can stake no claim.   

 Besides, it is as yet too early to forget that the 2002 Gujarat carnage, when Modi was chief minister, proved politically disastrous for the BJP at the national level. Since then, BJP has failed to return to power at the Centre, making parliamentary victory easier for Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Even if Modi assures total victory for BJP from Gujarat, it can hardly have much political significance in the Lok Sabha elections. In the present 544-member Lok Sabha, only 26 legislators are from Gujarat. The maximum members are from Uttar Pradesh (80), followed by at least half a dozen states which are represented by more than 26 legislators in the Lok Sabha.

There is a view that Modi’s victory symbolizes that the Gujarat carnage is now a forgotten issue for Gujarati voters. This point stands countered by Modi’s victory in the preceding two assembly elections too. Were 2002 carnage a dead or forgotten issue, Modi would probably not have made extensive efforts during his recent campaign to divert voters’ mind to other issues. Soon after the trend suggested that he was heading for a victory, Modi tweeted, “No need of looking behind, FORWARD! We want infinite energy, infinite courage, infinite patience...” He wants Gujarat and rest of India to forget 2002 carnage.

Also, the change in the nature of Modi’s campaign cannot be missed. He went for a 3D campaign, speaking to people across the state from Ahmedabad. Dropping the communal, anti-Muslim card, in which he had indulged in aggressively earlier, this time Modi tried presenting a secular image by sharing the stage with a few Muslim faces. Yet, he refused to wear a skull cap, symbolizing the Muslim image, even for a few seconds as he obviously did not want to turn the saffron brigade extremists against him. For them and within his own heart, his image as a hardcore Hindutva extremist remains unchanged. It may be recalled that in his bid for the prime ministerial position, senior BJP leader LK Advani had donned the skull cap several times, particularly at Iftar parties hosted in Delhi during the month of Ramadan. Modi has yet to reach even this “secular” ladder.

 Rather than forcefully playing on the secular card, Modi gave greater emphasis to the economic development of Gujarat. At the same time, the state’s high malnutrition rate has not been missed by even foreign media. When questioned on it by the Wall Street Journal, Modi tried masking the real picture by saying that Gujarati women preferred being slim than healthy. Statistics indicate that Gujarat does not lead in rural wage rates of men and women. Among Indian states, it ranks 14th in men’s rural wage rate and ninth in women’s, with both being below Rs 100 (Rs 69 and Rs 56) a day.

 Definitely, Congress failed to unmask the gruesome picture of poverty in Gujarat’s rural area and thus indirectly helped Modi win. Communalism still prevails here with most Muslims treated like second class citizens. Besides, even if it had succeeded, what has been practically ignored by Modi for a decade would have had to be paid attention to by the Congress in less than a year. And this would have implied ensuring justice as well as compensation for Muslims targeted in 2002 together with punishment for the guilty. Modi can politically afford to ignore these aspects as he has done earlier because he still banks on his Hindutva base. But political significance of this strategy for Modi has so far been confined to Gujarat. It is to be watched in what manner the Congress plays its secular card, from now on at the national level.   

If Modi is pushed forward as BJP’s key political campaigner in the next parliamentary elections, the NDA’s survival may face a major risk. It may be recalled that in 1999, with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister, BJP succeeded in forming the NDA government only after it agreed to put its Hindutva agenda on the backburner. With Gujarat victory, BJP has a major political battle ahead between its Hindutva agenda, Modi’s national ambitions and its secular allies.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 January 2013 on page no. 11

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