This was nothing short of a thriller. The ‘hero’: Ambitious, charismatic, wily and tenacious. The ‘anti-hero’: A political behemoth ready to sacrifice his scruples just to stop the ‘hero’ in his tracks. The ‘plot’: An anointing about to be scuppered by a strong urge for self-gratification. The ‘audience’: A 714 million-strong electorate.
On Friday evening, when Rajnath Singh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s principal opposition entity, announced the name of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections, it marked the end of a high-octane political drama that finally shifted the focus from the radical Hindu outfit’s declared stance of strident ‘Hindutva’ (advocating Hindu nationalism) to one of perceived brand optimisation in the form of ‘Moditva’. That way, September 13, 2013, is truly a watershed.
And the day will also be remembered for two other aspects — a paradox and an ‘epitaph’.
A paradox because as BJP put its seal of approval on its favourite poster boy as tomorrow’s leader, thereby inching away from core issues like the Ram temple or a Hindu rashtra (nation) and closer to a pro-development plank as championed by ‘NaMoji’, the party effectively allowed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to strengthen its grip over 11, Ashok Road (BJP headquarters in New Delhi). After all, Modi has always been the ‘RSS man’ in BJP.
As for the ‘epitaph’, September 13, 2013, will probably be remembered as the day BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani was forced into political oblivion by opting for a ‘kamikaze’ course. The ugly soap opera that preceded Modi’s anointment was purely a result of Advani’s inability to realise that his political relevance in his own party was well past its sell-by date. Having already tendered his resignation once in June, when Modi was named the BJP’s campaign committee chairman, the former deputy prime minister has boxed himself into an embarrassment that is most likely to deny him a respectable superannuation.
Naming Modi as its prime ministerial candidate is BJP’s last throw of the dice so far as the next Lok Sabha elections are concerned. In the last two polls, in 2004 and 2009, the party failed to capture the nation’s imagination — be it the inability to offer an alternative political agenda to that of the ruling Congress party or the failure to fill in a leadership vacuum in the post-Atal Bihari Vajpayee era.
The BJP must have realised that the hackneyed agenda of building a Ram temple or clamouring for a Hindu rashtra find little or no echo among an electorate that has moved way beyond the allure of strident Hindutva (Hindu way of life an social consciousness). In India’s fast-changing socio-political landscape and an ever-expanding macroeconomic latitude, intellectual space occupied by an individual can never be taken for granted by any political party. So the BJP had to think beyond its strident pitch and opt for either a ‘shock’ or a ‘stock’ option to challenge India’s Grand Old Party (read Congress).
The ‘shock’ option
With Congress again leaning on the Gandhi brand name by projecting Rahul Gandhi as Manmohan Singh’s successor at 7 Racecourse Road (prime minister’s official residence), there was desperation in the BJP rank and file to retaliate. More so, since a faltering economy and growing disenchantment with the corruption-ridden United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre had created a huge trust deficit between the man on the street and the establishment. Under the circumstances, BJP could have responded with a ‘stock’ option like Advani. But that would have been like taking a hundred steps backwards, trying to relive the past — wallowing in self-pity. Or it could have responded with a ‘shock’ option. And that is precisely what it has done by anointing Modi for the top job.
Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat has always been a sore point and a bitter pill that BJP still finds difficult to swallow. Yet, the party top brass chose to bite the bullet, having realised that the best bet to counter Congress’s pro-poor stance is Modi — the master administrator whose art and craft of governance and sheer oratory have won him and the party accolades from various quarters — the scepticism notwithstanding.
BJP is banking heavily on Modi’s record as a successful administrator and Gujarat’s popularity with India Inc as an investor-friendly destination. Moreover, according to a section of political analysts, what had happened in Gujarat more than a decade back may not hold much relevance for voters today in a pan-India perspective. In fact, a sizeable section of minority voters has gone with Modi in the last two state elections in Gujarat and many feel it will be wrong to judge Modi only through the prism of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
It remains to be seen whether RSS’s hold over the party is restricted to merely laying out the Modi template or whether it mutates deeper into BJP genetics. For now — the drama is over, though the stage is set.