If Narendra Modi, the controversial Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Gujarat becomes India’s next prime minister, it will be because Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, together with their prime minister, Manmohan Singh, have left such a leadership vacuum at the end of nine years of increasingly ineffectual government that India is willing to take a gamble on a feared politician.
It will also be because the BJP’s national leaders have failed so dismally in the nine years to form any sort of coherent political opposition, and instead have led a gaggle of chronic disruption in parliament, that is was easy for Modi to step in.
Modi, who will be 63 next week, was anointed yesterday (right) by the BJP as its prime ministerial candidate in almost presidential style after he had spent months travelling around the country advertising his leadership qualities at public meetings.
He is India’s first new national leader to emerge since the 1980s, and he would almost be a shoe-in for the post of prime minister if it were not for the baggage that he carries of Gujarat’s Godhra riots in 2002, when more than 2,000 people are believed to have been killed, with 12,000 Muslims losing their homes. He has support in urban India, especially from the corporate sector, and he now has to widen the BJP’s electoral base across the country, and rebuild it in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. Then, if the BJP does well in the polls, he will have to prove amenable enough to attract other parties into a coalition. Neither task will be easy.
This means that neither of India’s two leading prime ministerial candidates for next year’s general election is ideal. Both of them, in very different ways, arouse either strong opposition or despair and, of course, the next prime minister might come from another party.
The other leading candidate is Rahul Gandhi, who the Congress Party does not seem to dare officially to name formally, probably in case he does not shape up during the coming months, or because he or Sonia Gandhi could nominate someone else, as happened in 2004. Leading Congress ministers are however talking about him as the prime ministerial candidate, and say they would be willing to serve under him – providing Congress gets enough seats to be able to lead a coalition government and virtually dictate who should be prime minister.
Neither Modi nor Gandhi is ideal because Modi is a divisive Hindu nationalist who, on his past record, could create fear and social unrest, though he has earned his new position by providing himself a capable politician and administrator.
Gandhi has no administrative experience, shies away from his public role, and rarely if ever speaks in parliament. He would not be in the running for any significant political post if he were not the son, grandson, and great-grand son of previous prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and if he had not been chosen as her heir apparent by Sonia Gandhi, the current Congress leader and Rajiv’s widow.
I first wrote about after Modi’s national leadership qualities in July 2002, for a column in the Business Standard after the Gujarat riots. I had been away in the UK and felt on my return that, while condemning the appalling massacre and Modi’s reported role, India had a new potential national leader. “Unlike most politicians, the Gujarat chief minister was arguing passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction,” I wrote. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence, force and élan. Whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence and looked like a logical heir to the BJP leadership.
Friends and contacts told me that I was wrong, and asked how a man who had presided in the state as chief minister during such ghastly bloody carnage could ever win popular respect and a wide following. Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence, and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. Yet, since then, he has led the BJP to re-election three times in successive five-yearly state assembly polls. I have written in similar terms on this blog three or four times in recent years and, each time, am met with incredulity that Modi could even become the BJP prime ministerial candidate.
He comes from a poor low caste (Other Backward Caste or OBC), which could be an electoral asset if he can moderate his style. As a boy, he worked on a tea stall at a railway terminus in Gujarat till he became a political activist in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Association of Volunteers, the BJP’s hard-line parent organisation that was behind his anointing yesterday. That is a dramatically different social background from the patrician Gandhi dynasty. (Modi, right, with his mother)
In his campaign, Modi will attack the rampant corruption and bad governance of the Congress government, and stress the need for development and economic growth, as well as projecting the BJP’s basic Hindu nationalist line. Gandhi and the Congress will argue that the current government has worked well for the poor and implemented liberal polices such as the right to information, a rural employment guarantee scheme, a national food security programme, and land acquisition reforms. It will also stress its role in uniting India’s diverse communities and cultures.
It looks now as if lack of faith in Rahul Gandhi will drive voters to support the BJP, and that fear of Modi will drive others to vote for Congress. Both men could change those perceptions in the coming five months. Modi could soften his image and appear less divisive and more accommodating to the needs of the poor and religious minorities. Gandhi could toughen up and behave like a political leader with coherent policies who is earning his position and not assuming it as a right. On balance, I reckon Modi is more likely to change his image than Gandhi is to grow into his role.
See also earlier posts: