Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was in Mumbai and two people I know reacted in unexpected ways. More than what they said was the feeling with which they spoke: without a doubt, Modi elicits passion. First, a politically conservative industrialist bitterly spat out his opinion that Modi was arrogant and petty.
Then, a young English-speaking intellectual — one of those who read Milan Kundera and Paul Auster — jumped in his seat with joy, his arms in the air, a cheer bursting from his smiling face, when I mentioned that the BJP might be moving systematically to making Modi their prime ministerial candidate in the next elections. I was puzzled. It was as if someone had switched their reactions, or their personalities, given how industrialists and intellectuals generally respond to Modi.
Modi elicits passion and despite the suspicion with which some Indians view him for the 2002 riots, there is a growing uncertainty over how he will fare in a general election; in the sense that he may perform better than pundits’ expectations and end up prime minister.
A minor indication of this was at a dinner for a group of senior journalists hosted by a prominent Western diplomat. The diplomat was at a loss for words when asked if the USA might give Modi a visa if he became prime minister. While no one knows if he will win a big election, they are no longer certain that he will lose it.
The party responsible for laying this ground is not Modi’s own BJP (where he is admired and loathed by his peer-group in equal measure), but the Congress, by sheer dint of its incompetent governance and clueless political management (I’m sure no laundry list of failures need be given anymore).
What Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s pusillanimity — and there’s no end of it in sight, for despite the hints that Congress President Sonia Gandhi drops for him to move on and allow someone else to helm the remaining two years of UPA-2, he pretends deafness and settles deeper into his chair — has done is made a lot of otherwise fence-sitting Indians yearn for a strongman to run the country. This may not be all desirable once it happens: an authoritarian leader is likely to ram through unpopular policy measures; industrialists who are not used to taking orders will call him arrogant (as we saw at the start of this column); and even if the UPA-2 drops its Unique Identification project, an authoritarian leader is likely to implement it and make it more intrusive than imagined.
Yet whatever the pitfalls, both visible and unforeseeable, the fact is that Modi may never get a more conducive atmosphere to becoming prime minister (unless the 2014 election gives us a non-Congress, non-BJP government; chances are that the competing ambitions within such a government will lead to its early fall and make the voter yearn even more for a strongman).
For Modi to lead a general election campaign, however, the BJP would have to consciously adopt a strategy of polarising the electorate. Not that it is incapable of this, but it does not seem likely merely because it would detract from the issue that would have given them a fighting chance – the incumbent’s incompetence and corruption. Whether the BJP is contesting against an incumbent UPA-2 or against an incumbent federal front government, it seems logical that it would milk anti-incumbency rather than blunt the attack by raising another issue. Hence it seems unlikely that, in the next elections at least, Modi will not be asked to lead a campaign. Rather, if the numbers fall into place (180-plus seats for the BJP), then he probably would accept an invitation from the NDA to head the government.
This brings up the question of Modi’s acceptability by potential allies. I hear a lot from colleagues and fellow professionals that Modi is unacceptable to allies, but frankly, outside of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar refusing to be seen with him during state assembly elections, there does not seem to be much evidence that Modi is an untouchable. In fact, it is clear that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa regards Modi as a friend (even if she herself is keen to lead a central government at some point).
Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has also publicly demonstrated warmth. The Akalis and the Shiv Sena will undoubtedly support him. We’ll see how Jaganmohan Reddy feels after his current adventures with the CBI. Mayawati has never kept Modi at arm’s length. And I think West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee can spring a surprise by returning to the NDA, if it gets her state what she wants. There’s a chance Modi could push past the magic 274-mark in the Lok Sabha.
Each day that the UPA-2 continues to be paralysed, Modi gets stronger, and the passions he elicits get stronger. There seems little chance of the Congress making a course-correction, especially if they send Pranab Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhawan.
If the BJP is smart, it will hone its strategy along these lines, but then smartness appears to be in short supply in our political class these days; this is probably why passions have a chance of winning the day.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai