The only bad news for a politician is no news about him, and nowhere does this adage work better than in the case of Narendra Modi, who has become the focus of rival campaigns, one by his admirers and the other by his traducers. Aware of his pulling power, television channels beam live presentations of the increasing number of speaking engagements that the Gujarat Chief Minister has, especially in the national capital. Now that they have been back in power for nine years, and despite the fact that regular power supply is still a mirage for most of the country’s population (or indeed any electric power at all), the Congress has reverted to the pre-NDA view of themselves as the natural party of governance. For the party loyalists, Delhi belongs to them by right and tradition and they bristle at a “regional” politician getting the prominence that Modi has achieved within the national capital region (NCR), especially one who is so openly disrespectful of the First Family.
The NDA had an opportunity during 1998-2004 to make Congress dominance in the national capital history. Indeed, Pramod Mahajan came very close in 2001 to ensuring that more than a third of Congress MPs split to join the NDA, before he was warned off that project by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who regards the Congress’ First Family as his own family and has always been solicitous of their welfare. Part of the reason why the NDA was unable to break the hold of the Congress over state power was because it was so similar to India’s current ruling party. The BJP metamorphosed, from a “party with a difference” to an organisation happy to adopt classic Nehruvian ways.
Vajpayee’s policy of appearing in RSS rallies as an ardent swayamsevak got combined with the way in which RSS-friendly elements were ignored by his administration in favour of those who were for long Congress servitors. This dual track approach of talking BJP but acting Congress confused the public and helped to ensure that enough voters (who would ordinarily have voted for the BJP) stayed away in 2004 to help cause an upset win for the Congress. Analysts claim that it was the “superior alliance” led by the Congress that ensured its win. The fact is that the Vajpayee-run NDA had become too diffused an entity to benefit its own allies, which of course is the reason why the Congress would like to see another version of Vajpayee take charge of the BJP.
Narendra Modi may love and admire Atal Behari Vajpayee, but he is very different from the BJP patriarch. There is no ambiguity in his manner or in his message. Like him or hate him, he will not change. While such a trait makes those steeped in the durbari culture of Delhi wary of the man, it is precisely such directness that has won the Gujarat CM so many admirers. He has cellophane for his packaging, and highlights his regional experience to a country no longer in thrall to Delhi-based leaders. Just as the US electorate began to choose politicians from the states in preference to Washington insiders, so too are Indian voters likely to prefer them to the cosy set that for decades has dominated India through their control of the NCR’s levers of power. Should the BJP win close to 200 seats, Narendra Modi will be the PM. Should it get about 165, he could become the Deputy PM, a Sardar Patel to someone who will be far from a Nehru, showing the public just how good an administrator he is, so that they next time around, they will vote the now nationally tested Team Modi into office. Lower than 165, he would still be the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and a determined foe to match wits with. No matter what the 2014 arithmetic is, Modi is here to stay.
There are many within his own party who are wishing that the BJP gets less than 180 seats, “so that Modi cannot become PM”. They understand that should this man from the provinces take over the reins of power, it will no longer be “business as usual”. Although these same voices will ask of Narendra Modi that he refuse any post at the Central level lower than that of PM, the fact is that stepping into Sardar Patel’s shoes too would be a shrewd career move.
Had the Sardar lived another few years, the steep difference in direction and efficiency between him and Nehru would have led to the pre-Indira Congress replacing Nehru with Patel as the head of the government. Whatever the Sardar handled, he handled firmly and well. Should Modi agree to the 1970s Achutha Menon model, where the CPI leader became CM of Kerala even though the Congress had more seats, he would — should he deliver results — lead the BJP to power during the next election. Hence the political need for him to be central in Delhi, whether as PM, as Deputy PM, or as Leader of the Opposition.