The victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP (in that order: this is Modi’s triumph much more than it is the BJP’s) in the Gujarat assembly election will come as no surprise. Even before the exit polls were out everyone knew that Modi would win.
There are three principal reasons for Modi’s victory. The first is that, contrary to what secularists like to believe, politicians accused of complicity in riots against minorities usually benefit from a consolidation of majority votes. The Congress swept Delhi in 1984 despite the horrific massacres of Sikhs. And the only time the Shiv Sena has ever come to power in Maharashtra was after the bloody anti-Muslim riots of 1992/3. The 2002 riots may have hurt Modi in terms of his global image but within Gujarat they have established him as Hindutva idol.
The second factor is the ineffectual nature of the fight put up by the Congress in Gujarat. The party has not won an assembly election since 1985. Its organisation has melted away. It has no leaders of consequence. And its candidates are no-hopers and non-entities.
Finally, of course, there’s the Modi factor. Though his followers in Delhi portray him as a national icon, Modi’s own appeal to his electorate is framed in strictly regional terms. He tells voters that he represents the pride and hopes of millions of Gujaratis who have been ignored and insulted by the ‘Delhi Sultanate’. As the Congress has no leaders of stature in the state, it is easy to portray it as a party of servile pygmies who take orders from Delhi.
To see Modi’s appeal solely in Hindu vs Muslim terms is to miss the point. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi is the one significant political leader to emerge in the last 40 years. Why is it, ask Gujarati voters, that the state of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and even Morarji Desai has virtually no representation on either the Congress or BJP front benches in Delhi? Can anyone name a major national politician from any party who is a Gujarati? Neglected for decades, the state is now sending its favourite son to do battle with the Delhi Sultanate.
But is this a fight that Modi can win? Within the BJP, there are two views. The first is that the party can expect around 140-150 seats at the next general election. In such a scenario, it will need allies.
And no ally — not Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu or Naveen Patnaik — will support a party that wants to make Narendra Modi prime minister.
The contrary view in the BJP is that once the party wins over 180 seats (as it did in 1998) it will be in a position to dictate terms to allies. But, argue Modi’s admirers, the BJP can only reach that figure if it has a charismatic leader like Modi at the head of its campaign.
There are two problems with this hypothesis. The first is that no matter how much the BJP cadres push for Modi, his candidacy will be opposed by the existing BJP leadership. The BJP’s style has been to restrict strong regional leaders (Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, for instance) to the states while ensuring that its national leaders (AB Vajpayee or LK Advani, for example) are not associated with any one state. A Modi candidacy works against that principle. Not only is he essentially a regional leader, but Modi’s dictatorial style makes the BJP front bench apprehensive.
The second problem is that ultimately it won’t be the BJP that will pick its prime ministerial candidate. It will be the RSS. And so far at least, the evidence suggests that the wily old men of Nagpur want a prime minister who defers to them, not one who is used to getting his own way.
The Congress is divided in its attitude to a Modi-led campaign. Many Congressmen believe that once the BJP declares Modi as its leader, Muslim voters will desert regional parties and return to the Congress arguing that it remains the best hope of defeating Modi’s BJP. Others worry that a consolidation of the Muslim vote in these circumstances could result in a similar consolidation of part of the Hindu vote. Not only would this benefit the BJP but it would also tear India apart, opening a communal chasm that the country can ill-afford.
The Congress’s primary concern, however, is that the urban middle class might gravitate towards Modi because of his reputation for good governance. Having written off Gujarat, the party spent the entire campaign chipping away at Modi’s developmental claims. This may not have swayed Gujarat’s voters but the Congress believes that it has altered the national narrative. Till only a few months ago, Modi’s reputation as a great administrator had gone unchallenged. But now, he is being forced to defend his record.
Finally, however, Modi’s future depends on factors that are difficult to predict. Can he go beyond the hopes and aspirations of millions of Gujaratis and come to embody the dreams of Indians as a whole? If he does go up against Rahul Gandhi at the next election, will the demographics work in his favour? Or will his old-style demagoguery put off young voters?
Modi is in no mood to wait for the answers to these questions. His campaign to first conquer his own party and then, all of India, is ready. And in the next few months, he will roll it out.
The views expressed by the author are personal