Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi is to my mind the most interesting politician of our generation. Certainly, he is the most charismatic. Of no other leader from the last 25 years can we say that he created a national following on the strength of his personality and his performance alone.
Modi is also easily the most talented of our politicians. He communicates with his audience directly, clearly and without needing the media. Few can match him for the sort of passion he generates with his words.
This makes him like one of the Greek demagogues the comic playwright Aristophanes so despised.
Modi has many here who dislike his policies and his record just as much, and it is difficult to say that this is unjustified.
In fact, his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay classifies Modi as our first non-Nehruvian leader, meaning someone who makes absolutely no concession to secularism.
Within the BJP, the debate of his leadership was actually settled by the grassroots. It is the pressure of the ordinary worker of the party, whose language Modi speaks and whose thinking Modi reflects, which has put Modi in charge of the BJP’s campaign. This happened, as we have observed, in defiance of the establishment under LK Advani.
The RSS Sarsanghchalak and his aides, who have been unhappy about the way Modi has run Gujarat as a one-man show, have also been steamrolled by the ordinary karyakarta plumping for Modi.
And so, while this is not admitted, the issue of Modi’s candidature has been forced on the BJP’s old guard in New Delhi, which was so far assured of its primacy, but no longer.
What sort of prime ministerial candidate will Modi make? Last year I explored aspects of this in a blog post for the Hindustan Times, but from Modi’s personal perspective.
What does his leadership mean for his party’s 2014 prospects? Let’s look at this through what the corporate world calls a SWOT analysis, which is to say the internal strengths and weaknesses of the strategy and the external opportunities and threats it faces.
Strengths: The obvious one is clarity of message. The electorate stands informed: vote the BJP and get Modi. Compare this to the Congress, still waffling over who its leader is to be - Manmohan Singh? Sonia Gandhi? Rahul? Someone else?
The voter doesn’t really know. Nor is this clear for the Third Front and other formations. The only candidate at the moment is Modi.
The second strength is unity of theme. Modi stands for uncompromising Hindutva and business-friendly policies as his record in Gujarat shows.
He also represents a tough-on-corruption image that has broadened his appeal in the middle class.
The third is the discipline and hard work that Modi is bringing to the campaign. He is a first-rate campaigner and we will see a 2014 run that will be innovative and pulsing with energy and ideas.
Fourth: Modi’s core strength is implementation and execution. Aspects of what in America’s politics is called the ground game will be seen in the BJP’s campaign this time.
Weaknesses: Modi is feared within his own party as being someone who doesn’t tolerate rivals. This fear is merited. He has booted out the entire front rank of the Gujarat BJP and stands alone in that state.
He inherited a two-thirds majority in Gandhinagar from Keshubhai Patel and, though he has sustained it, has never had the need to form consensus in his team.
Modi conducts a personalised politics that leaves no room for a strong No. 2 and he will insist that the BJP is subservient to him. This insecurity will not redound to the benefit of the BJP.
Second, Modi puts off the thinking voter and frightens the minorities. His rustic simplicity, certitude and his crudeness are appealing to many but not all.
Opportunities: The muddle that the country is in if we go by commentary in the media - endemic corruption, lawlessness and lack of safety on the streets, an inability to legislate reform, a wilting of economic growth, a softness on the borders - means many are thinking of a tough solution.
Modi has positioned himself as that. If ever there was a demand for someone who, even at a high cost, could clean up the State, it is now, in our times.
If it is true that the coming election will be about change, that sentiment is best represented and best expressed by Modi.
Threats: The BJP campaign will be about Modi the man if we have his past as a guide. There will be as much about him in the media, and more, as there will be about the issues.
Even if there is some nuance in the BJP’s messaging, unlike in Gujarat where it is a pure personality cult, the media will keep its focus on him because Modi refuses to dilute his fairly crystallised personality.
This leaves the field relatively open for regional parties to capture issues and capitalise on the Congress’s incompetence.
On the whole, these arguments appear to show that Modi’s elevation is more beneficial to the BJP than damaging. In that sense, the grassroots had it right in picking him above the head of the establishment.
Of course there are the things we haven’t considered here, like the prospective allies that Modi repels. These are matters that must wait till the election is over and the votes are counted. The issue at hand is the campaign.
For now, for all of us, whether one supports his politics and his manner of functioning or not, it will be fascinating to see whether Modi can repeat in Delhi what he has done in Gandhinagar.
Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal.