By Neerja Chowdhury
Like them or not, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Narendra Modi will be players in the future. For all three, the year 2012 will be a watershed, which will have a bearing on their political fortunes. The outcome of the UP polls is expected to give a fillip — or otherwise — to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. The UP elections will also determine Mayawati’s political graph. And the year 2012 will also unfold the political prospects — and strategy — of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi’s convincing victory in the just-concluded elections to six corporations in Gujarat has taken his supporters and opponents by surprise. More so as Modi had been on the defensive. He had to contend with a large number of rebels in the fray. The Congress had mounted an offensive against him on the encounter of Sheikh Sohrabuddin and the Chief Minister’s close aide and former Home Minister Amit Shah had been put behind bars. Many believe that this strategy not only fell flat but proved to be counterproductive.
In five out of the six corporations, Modi won by a two-thirds and even a three-fourths majority, demolishing any impression that the Gujarat Chief Minister was losing ground in his home state. It was as if the middle class Gujaratis wanted to provide Modi with a suraksha chakra.
Some would like to dismiss the Modi victory — he made it a prestige issue and addressed half a dozen rallies a day, focusing more on national than local issues — as nothing surprising. For Gujarat has been a laboratory of the Hindutva forces, and the state is more urban in its spread than many other states of India.
The significance of the Modi victory lies as much for the Congress Party as for the BJP. The Gujarat Chief Minister is successfully weakening the Con-gress in the state. Only in Junagadh — where there is a sizeable Muslim population —the Opposition defeat was somewhat respectable. Other-wise, it was a rout for the Congress everywhere.
If anything, the polls show the systematic decimation of the Congress and this should worry the central leadership of the party. More so, as the BJP had recently wrested the Kathlal seat in a by-election, which the Congress had not lost for 50 years. The truth is that the Congress does not know how to emerge as an alternative to the BJP in Gujarat. It neither has the leadership to take on Modi, nor does it have a strategy to counter the challenge posed by him, nor for that matter has it demonstrated the political will to grapple with it.
As for the BJP, last year, when the post of the party president was under consideration, the BJP had sent two names to the RSS for its view. These were Nitin Gadkari and Narendra Modi. The first preference of L. K. Advani was Modi. But surprisingly, Modi had shown his disinclination to don the head-of-the-party mantle.
Being the shrewd politician that he is, he knew that the battle for the 2014 general elections would be waged only after 2012. The UP elections slated for that year would be a semi-final. And UP is a tricky proposition for any BJP chief to turn around. Clearly, a BJP defeat in the country’s largest state would have hardly encouraged Modi’s chances to lead the party in the general elections. Modi obviously did not want the failure in UP to be dogging his footsteps.
If he now manages to win the forthcoming panchayat and municipality elections, in which over 30 million people will indicate their preferences, and if he is able to retain Gujarat for the BJP again two years down the line, Modi would be the frontrunner for party president next time. In 2012, BJP chief Nitin Gadkari’s term comes to an end.
As far as the Sangh is concerned, Modi was acceptable to the RSS even last year. It is more his colleagues in the party, who have had reservations about him, for obvious reasons. In the last couple of years, he has tried to undo the damage done during his first stint as Chief Minister, when he had managed to alienate not just his colleagues in the BJP but also Gujarat leaders in the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and they saw him as a maverick, not a team leader. But of late, he has been bending over backwards to play down his importance to counter the charge of ‘arrogance.’ Time and again he has stated that he was only a “small worker,” that it was the party which mattered and that the recent victory was not of Modi but of “Team BJP.”
Narendra Modi has also been trying for an image makeover in order to live down his post-Godhra image, which makes him persona non grata in large parts of the country as also with some Western governments, which have refused to welcome him into their countries.
That is why he has gone out of his way to focus on the bread and butter issues, zeroing in on the development agenda. He also gave Muslims tickets in the Muslim-dominated areas in the recent civic polls. One of the first statements he made after the poll victory was to attribute it to the Muslim vote for the BJP, and went to the extent of saying that without it, the BJP would not have been so successful.
There are many in the sangh who believe that of all the BJP leaders, he is best placed today to galvanize public opinion for the BJP. But because he comes with baggage, it would be very difficult for him to be projected as the BJP’s Prime Minister candidate in the next electoral round, for the simple reason that he will not be acceptable to the BJP’s allies. (That explains his recent emphasis on winning over Muslims) Nitish Kumar has had his way in keeping Modi out of Bihar for campaigning in the forthcoming state elections.
It is not for nothing that Sushma Swaraj has been forging closer relationships with the BJP’s allies, using her position as Leader of the Opposition to build bridges with them. Arun Jaitley has all along supported Modi. He would hope that if Modi is unacceptable for the top job, then Modi would back Jaitley, were such an eventuality to arise.
It is widely held in the Sangh Parivar that Modi would like to make a bid to takeover the reins of the BJP, after he has demonstrated his mass appeal yet once in the state elections of 2012. The recent civic elections are a stepping stone in that direction. Modi’s runaway civic victory goes to make him that much more invincible as a leader, and to silence his critics within the party.
Narendra Modi is playing for high stakes. He is doing everything possible to reach out for greater acceptability within his own party and amongst a wider constituency. Clearly, he will keep his aces up his sleeve and play them only at the appropriate time, if his moment comes in 2012
Courtesy: Express Buzz