For several months now, the media have squarely focused attention, and rightly so, on the travails of the UPA 2 and its leadership. A series of scams and double digit inflation have undermined the credibility of the ruling arrangement at the Centre. As we turn a relentless gaze on Manmohan Singh and Co, what we seem to have lost sight of is the predicament of the Opposition. Who will, for example, be the Opposition candidate for prime ministership in 2014?
As the single largest opposition party, the BJP should be offering the natural alternative to the UPA. But the BJP is still wrestling with the next generation leadership conundrum, one reason perhaps why LK Advani remains chairperson of its parliamentary party, despite having indicated a desire to retire from active politics after the 2009 Lok Sabha defeat. Advani will be 84 this November, and the general elections are still three years away. The remarkable performance of VS Achuthanandan in the Kerala elections may have given hope to all octogenarian politicians, but whether this can be replicated in a national election is uncertain. Moreover, despite making a sincere effort at political re-invention — be it through his Jinnah remarks or his blogs — the ghosts of Ayodhya will always limit Advani’s appeal as a Vajpayee-like Bhishma Pitamaha figure acceptable to all groups.
But if not Advani, then who? As a cadre-based outfit, the RSS had historically focused on the notion of a collective leadership, consciously staying away from dynasty and personality cults. But as Indian elections became presidential in nature, the Sangh was forced to accept Vajpayee’s larger-than-life image. Now, with the Advani-Vajpayee era drawing to a close, the RSS has reverted to its original belief in organisation above individuals. The appointment of a low-profile ‘outsider’ like Nitin Gadkari in December 2009 as party president was a signal by the RSS leadership to the BJP that it did not see any of the younger leaders to be first among equals. The message was clear: rise above ego and factionalism and you will then be considered for future leadership.
Unfortunately for the BJP, the scars from past antagonisms have still not healed. Sushma Swaraj has done an admirable job as the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. But as her recent utterances only confirm, she still feels conspired against by a section of her own party. While she is a charismatic vote-catcher blessed with the common touch, her acceptability within a patriarchal Sangh parivar set-up is questionable. Past examples of Vasundhara Raje and Uma Bharti have already shown that there is a certain resistance to a woman as leader within the saffron brotherhood.
Swaraj as the populist neta who appeals to the saas-bahu serial-watching classes can only be contrasted with Arun Jaitley as the urbane, sophisticated face of the BJP who can reach out to the more affluent Indian. But those who vote in television SMS polls often don’t make their way to the polling booths. Which may also partly explain Jaitley’s own reluctance to contest a Lok Sabha election. Like Swaraj, he, too, has performed well in Parliament. But debating skills alone cannot be a substitute for the heat and dust of an election campaign. Which brings us to the leader who, for the core BJP constituency, is undoubtedly its ideological mascot: Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. If a vote were to to be conducted among the BJP’s rank and file as to who should lead the party in 2014, Modi would be the clear front-runner. His staunch Hindutva credentials coupled with his governance record in Gujarat make him a natural choice for those who want the BJP to return to its roots as a party of rightwing nationalism. Modi’s disadvantage is that the era of single-party rule has given way to coalitions, which places a premium on a more consensual political leadership. So while Modi may well be acceptable to an ideology-neutral Jayalalithaa, his Gujarat 2002 persona will not be accepted by potential allies like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, who are keen to aggressively parade their ‘secular’ credentials.
To be fair, all three BJP prime ministerial aspirants have made a serious effort to rise above their limitations. Swaraj’s entry, for example, into Twitterworld is part of her attempt to cultivate a younger, net-savvy India. Jaitley’s expertise in election management in different states has enhanced his political stature. Modi, too, has never missed an opportunity to be seen as a socially responsible ‘modern’ leader (including writing a book on global warming). But somehow, none of these leaders has quite achieved their ‘breakthrough’ moment where their pre-eminent position as the ‘face’ of the Opposition is firmly established.
Which brings us back to the central question: who will be the Opposition’s prime ministerial nominee in 2014? The criteria are clear: you need a leader who has been tested in mass politics, is a proven administrator, has a relatively clean image but, most importantly, is seen as a coalition-builder. There is little doubt that the challenge for the Opposition in 2014 is to forge the widest possible coalition of parties, thereby building a credible non-Congress alternative similar to the Vajpayee-NDA model of the late 1990s.
Ironically, in the circumstances, it’s not a BJP leader, but Nitish Kumar, who has successfully managed a coalition government in Bihar, who seems the best possible option at the moment. He could just be the kind of leader with a moderating influence who might draw in new constituents and old allies back into the NDA fold. The real question then is: will the BJP’s cadres accept Nitish as their leader? Watch this space closely.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network n firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the author are personal.