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Popular but polarising: can Narendra Modi be PM?

The Gujarat CM can be a national leader only when India votes for the BJP with him as the party's mascot. The proof of Modi's popularity will come only when he campaigns and seeks votes for himself nationwide, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2012 18:33 IST

Is Narendra Modi certain to be prime minister? Frankly, I don't know. True, among contemporary chief ministers and even national-level--which generally means Delhi-based--politicians he is perhaps the most charismatic mass leader and successful administrator. Yet he also has a polarising persona, and even his adherents cannot run away from that.

In Gujarat, the degree of polarisation is relatively muted in comparison to previous years. Opinion polls show Muslim hostility to Modi is declining. It is not as if significant numbers of Muslims are voting for him, but there is a fall in the antipathy of the community to him and the propensity to line up behind his (or his party's) strongest opponent. The very fact that the opposition party does not start with such a fixed vote bloc ends up boosting Modi. It is not just important that he gains votes--though that too may be happening--it is equally important that his rival loses votes.

How will this scenario play out in a national framework? How will Muslim voters in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh, for instance, respond to a potential Modi candidature? This is a genuinely piquant question. The prospect of a Yadav-Muslim collective uniting behind Laloo Yadav worries Nitish Kumar for one. From his vantage position, he has reason to be concerned.

In Uttar Pradesh, more of the Muslim vote went to the Congress in the 2009 general election than in the 2012 assembly election, when Muslims preferred the Samajwadi Party (SP). It is possible that in a hypothetical Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi contest, the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh could swing massively towards the Congress. This is obviously a scenario the Congress would work towards.

For the moment Modi is entirely untested as a national vote catcher. The performance of the BJP in constituencies outside Gujarat in which he may have campaigned in 2009 does not really count. He drew crowds, but not necessarily votes. There is a reason for this. Modi evokes curiosity and people turn up to see and listen to him. This is not different from Sonia Gandhi or even Rahul Gandhi at times gathering crowds that have not translated into votes.

In Modi's case, the proof of the pudding will come only when he campaigns and seeks votes for himself, for a BJP he leads and an agenda he shapes. Even in Gujarat, where his supremacy and popularity are unparalleled, the BJP's performance in assembly elections has been much better than in Lok Sabha elections. This is because the average Gujarati is enthusiastic about Narendra Modi becoming chief minister but was not as enthusiastic about, for example, L.K. Advani becoming prime minister, and even Modi's advocacy did not convince him or her.

The scenario would be different if Modi were standing for prime minister. As opinion polls show, support for Modi's prime ministerial candidature in Gujarat outscores the electoral popularity of the BJP in the state. Close to 10% of people who said they would vote for the Congress--or at least not vote for the BJP--in the December 2012 state election insisted however that they wanted to see Modi as prime minister.

Should Modi become the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, a certain degree of Muslim consolidation against him can be expected. The question is: to what degree can Modi offset this with a countervailing appeal? In the small towns and cities of the country--the BJP's traditional bastions, especially in northern and western India, with pockets in the east and south--he has an obvious advantage due to the thirst for an authoritative leader and the deep disappointment with the UPA government.

Here the BJP needs Modi to maximise its gains. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from Uttar Pradesh, to cite an example, suggests even caste groups not historically associated with the BJP and which voted for the SP in 2012 could consider turning to the BJP if Modi is the party's face. There is no rigorous evidence to establish this, but it can be posited that Modi represents a platform non-traditional BJP voters too could lean towards, at least in the 2014 election. How many votes would this add up to? Would they be stray figures or indicative of a surge? It is impossible to say. We can all guess, but that's where it stands.

As such, whether Modi is indeed a national leader will be tested only when India votes in the coming general election and presuming the BJP puts him up on its posters as principal mascot. While Modi's pan-Indian appeal is still a surmise, there is much more clarity on where he is placed within the BJP. He is the party's unquestioned sheet-anchor. Given the mess in the BJP's intrigue-filled headquarters in Delhi, it is only Modi who can give the party organisation direction by claiming an unambiguous moral authority. The rest is destiny.

(The writer is a political analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached atmalikashok@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.)