Posted by: John Elliott | September 14, 2013

Narendra Modi steps into national political vacuum

modi1_jpg_1583447gIf 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.

rahul-gandhi-287x300Neither 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.

Modi and mother - RediffHe 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: 


  1. […] controversial, dictatorial and potentially socially dangerous politician such as Modi once he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last […]

  2. It is not the lack of faith in Rahul/Congress that matters- it is the corruption and lack of action in the last 10 years that matters to the voters. And don’t expect NaMo to change the style — people who will vote for him want a strong leader. I have personally seen how he has made Gujarat bureaucracy work for the development, and his development program encompasses not just industrial growth but programs targeted at farmers, students, sports, and so on- things that matter to many on day to day. Some of the state elections showed votes are willing to give development a try as appose to caste/minority/KHAM politics. What I see is a real engagement of the youth- just notice their voice on social media in this analysis: (now there is an alternate way for the people to speak directly and not just listen to what established media feed them). Many elections are won by small number of votes– and a surge like the one Obama had in 2008 can entirely change the equation.

  3. India’s north-east, as expected, has been left out from the discourse on Modi’s rise. The north-east will be thrown back to the pre-Independence dark days if he becomes the prime minister, no doubts about it.

  4. Rahul could have well capitalized on his age and time to win this race and give India a young (in age) leader. Alas, he seems to have missed the bus here with his inexperience and hesistancy to polish himself.

  5. Naru does not have to change his image; in his supporters’ view, his image is so powerful that voters are going to flock to vote for him. If the entire country turns Hindutwit, what do the poor 15% Muslims matter?
    But he has been repositioning himself for many years – studiously avoiding the awkward subject of Muslimophobia, and taking credit for Gujarat’s economic performance, which has a little to do with him but a lot more with Gujarati entrepreneurs. His problem is not his public position, but that he just does not figure in the imagination of a Tamil, Telugu, Bihari, Bengali etc. He has started with time in his hands, but he will still have to show himself a lot in many parts of India.
    Finally, one has to be a journalist to think that leaders win elections. Maybe they do in small countries with well developed media, and in countries with a presidential system. In India, there are so many contenders and such parochial variations that elections are a pure lottery.

  6. Couldn’t agree more with you!

    Written 18 Aug:

  7. I am concerned about the rough-riding, self-righteous, very un-Indian (if I may say so) functioning style of Modi, which could easily become dictatorial like Indira Gandhi’s. Incidentally, the figure of “2000 people” having been killed in the 2002 riots, seems to be widespread but incorrect. The UPA government had confirmed in 2005 that 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims had died and 233 people were missing in the Gujarat riots. Also, to be objective, claims like “12000 Muslims losing their homes” should also mention the number of Hindus rendered homeless and be followed by how many of these people were re-housed and re-settled. It is not easy to deny that a substantial number of Muslims must have voted for BJP in the last assembly polls(figures of 20%, 25% and 31% are being bandied about). BJP has also won 47 out of 75 Gujarat Municipalities in 2013, with all 24 of its Muslim candidates winning. There is a process of some healing and recovery visible in Gujarat and one should hope it continues. Modi seems to have learnt the lesson from Gujarat, well taught by India’s Judiciary and by its civic society.

  8. “On balance, I reckon Modi is more likely to change his image than Gandhi is to grow into his role.”
    You may be right.. If Advani could change his, why not Modi?

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