Will Narendra Modi be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at the next elections? This question has started to obsess urban middle-class Indians. Mr Modi’s ceaseless self-projection has not only made it topical but even irresistible.
My answer is simple. Mr Modi’s possible candidature hinges on how many seats his peers in the BJP believe he can deliver. If under his leadership the BJP can get a minimum of 180 they will opt for him. With that firm base established, the BJP believes that allies will follow even if the JD(U) is not one of them.
But if, under Mr Modi’s leadership, the BJP stops short at 160 the Party’s Parliamentary Board will choose someone else. After all, in 1996 Atal Bihari Vajpayee could not form more than a 13-day government with 161 MPs. Modi will have even less chance of success. Then, even if the BJP is the single largest party, it will have to jettison its prime ministerial candidate if it wants to lead a government. No party would wish to be placed in such an invidious position.
Now, let me admit that no one in the BJP will confirm this cold, hard-headed logic but they won’t deny it either. However, some helpful leaders do respond with a telling smile!
For his part, Narendra Modi’s blitzkrieg is a deliberate strategic attempt to create a wave of popular support the BJP would find irresistible as it washes over the party. Riding its crest he hopes to claim the party’s prime ministerial candidature. But he can only succeed if he is able to convince his senior colleagues that he can deliver a minimum of 180 seats. Simply generating waves of urban middle class support may not be enough.
However, there is a factor that will help Mr Modi — the steady disillusionment, despair and, for many, disgust with the UPA government. As that continues and escalates — and it seems to do so relentlessly — many will deliberately, or less openly, vote for a man on a white horse who can change things. At the moment, Mr Modi seems to be closest to that description.
So, for all its carefully crafted official silence, the BJP could find it hard to resist Modi. Events seem to be moving in that direction. Now, where does Nitish Kumar’s bugle blast of protest fit into the crescendo calling for Modi?
He’s made it clear he cannot accept Modi and when, or if, the BJP opts for Modi Mr Kumar will separate. But will this threat deter the BJP?
No, is the short answer, although Kumar has opened small cracks in the party with Sushma Swaraj, Yashwant Sinha and Shivraj Singh Chouhan speaking out in favour of LK Advani. But despite his abundant energy and good health, 86-year-old Advani is a man of the past. The BJP needs someone to unlock the future. That could check the Advani challenge.
What remains is Mr Modi’s moral unacceptability. However, I’m increasingly convinced the BJP is inured to the Supreme Court’s or Gujarat High Court’s criticisms of Narendra Modi and his government. And when you ask if the Caesar’s wife principle should apply to the man who wants to be Caesar himself they respond as if the question makes no sense.
Meanwhile, Mr Kumar’s December deadline gives Narendra Modi ample time to whip up a thunderstorm of popular support. And he knows that. It will also create the perfect ground for breaking with the BJP. He knows that too.
Views expressed by the author are personal