How will the Congress countenance Narendra Modi — the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate who many think could script the party’s return to power in 2014? The question’s valid as the Gujarat chief minister styles himself as a strong and decisive leader regardless of his divisive appeal.
Even his polarising persona fits in well with the BJP’s so-called Hindu nationalism in an environment vitiated by terrorist violence and communal strife. Add to that his claims to development and effective, if not entirely inclusive governance, and Modi looks a formidable opponent to the ruling combine burdened by charges of malfeasance and maladministration.
In the given scenario, the BJP’s poster boy can indeed add value to the party’s vote base the way Vajpayee did in the second half of the nineties. But that’s the farthest one can go to keep the comparison from turning odious.
For Modi lacks the former premier’s amenable ways, mesmerizing oratory and the inclusive draw that made the BJP acceptable. Vajpayee’s unlikeliest ally was Karunanidhi’s DMK that overcame its anti-brahminical foundations to join the NDA bandwagon.
The Gujarat CM’s assets that won him the party nomination can be a liability in coalition politics where the prime ministerial slot has traditionally gone to leaders devoid of a mass base but having the ability to govern. It was essentially on this count that Morarji Desai (1977), Deve Gowda (1996-97) and Gujral (1997-98) got lucky while sturdier contenders such as Jagjivan Ram, Charan Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav sat out.
VP Singh’s elevation in 1989 was an exception. But as a senior BJP leader put it, the Congress rebel was “touched by the hand of destiny.” Modi in his view was similarly blessed.
The logic’s compelling but a trifle short on historical perspective. The anti-Congress wave that VP rode saw him securing outside support from the BJP and the Left. That lineup became a political impossibility post-1992 (Ayodhya) and 2002 (Gujarat riots).
Modi needs a landmark —if not a landslide — victory to become a PM. His camp followers insist that the buzz around his name among young urban voters can perhaps get him within the striking range of 200-odd target.
Anything short of 180-200 will afford his detractors an opening to kill his claim by exploiting his “low acceptability” among potential allies.
For the Congress fighting heavy odds, the best available options are a string of pre-poll alliances across states together with a publicity blitz based on rights-based jobs, food, education and access to forest produce in the countryside.
Here too it’ll have to choose carefully its poll partners. For the party then led by PV Narasimha Rao wouldn’t have lost power in 1996 had it tied up with the DMK-Tamil Manila Congress (TMC) and not Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. The 39 Lok Sabha seats the DMK-TMC-CPI won went into the kitty of the United Front the Congress was forced to support from outside.
The UF lasted barely two years, paving the way for the Vajpayee-led NDA to wrest power for 13 months in 1998 and full five years in 1999.
That means if the Congress props a third front in a hung house after the 2014 polls, it might be able to only postpone, not diminish Modi’s challenge.