As the Gujarat election campaign reaches its apogee, many observers predict a massive victory for Narendra Modi of the BJP, bigger even than the one he won in 2007. This can propel him to become the party’s candidate for Prime Minister in the next general election.
The Congress Party is in poor shape, dogged by high inflation, slowing economic growth and widespread accusations of corruption. This could conceivably enable the BJP to come to power once again at the head of a wide-ranging coalition, as in 1998 and 1999. And that could mean that Modi becomes Prime Minister.
This prospect fills many analysts with horror. Here is one example, in a column by TK Arun in The Economic Times: “Narendra Modi should not become the Prime Minister because that would destroy the idea of India as a nation that celebrates unity in diversity, where multiple identities prosper in harmony and dignity. Equally, democracy and the rule of law would be casualties under Modi. For the BJP, Modi’s ascent to the top would mean a hasty end to any hope of evolving into a centre-right party minus a Hindu majoritarian agenda.”
I cannot disagree more with this line of thinking. It sounds to me like fear of Modi translating into mistaken, unwarranted panic.
If he becomes Prime Minister-which is still a long shot-it will be as head of a ramshackle coalition of the sort Atal Behari Vajpayee headed in 1998 and 1999. Vajpayee was the liberal face of the BJP, and had immense charm and a capacity for accommodation that enabled him to carry people along with him. That is how he shepherded a rag-tag group of parties for so long.
But Modi is singularly lacking in precisely those skills. Whatever may be the great administrative qualities that have enabled him to claim to be creator of the Gujarat economic miracle, he has none as a persuasive team builder. He generates fear and loathing not only among other parties but among his own party peers.
“Modi is not on the best terms with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This is not because the Sangh suspects him of any ideological deviation. Rather, Modi personifies the Sangh’s belief system. The problem is that Modi is too authoritarian to accept the discipline even of the Sangh. This authoritarian streak has manifested itself as quashing of dissent and fostering of leaders like Amit Shah, prime accused in encounter killings and extortion rackets.”
Such a man will be a pathetic failure as head of a coalition in New Delhi. He loves to flex his muscle, and that is feasible for a state leader with a large majority and successful economy. But flexing your muscle is recipe for disaster for somebody heading a wide-ranging coalition in New Delhi. He will be humiliated and cut to pieces daily by his coalition partners, and will probably have to exit with his tail between his legs.
Those who hate Modi should welcome the prospect of his becoming Prime Minister, not dread it. Nothing is more certain to wreck his charisma.
However, the chances of the BJP coming to power in the next election are not too high. In 1998 it won no more than 182 seats against 273 needed for a majority, and required a host of allies to garner a majority. In 1999 it had the huge advantage of having won the Kargil war against Pakistan, yet the BJP-led NDA coalition was fractionally short of the magic figure of 273 and had to rope in the TDP for a clear majority.
In those days the BJP was a major force in the largest state, Uttar Pradesh. But today it has faded into fourth place in the state. It has parted company with its old partner in Odisha, the BJD. So, it will be lucky to get more than 150 seats in 2014. If at all it comes to power it will be as part of a large, undisciplined coalition where minor partners constantly thumb their noses at the Prime Minister. Such a coalition may not even have a majority, and may rule as a minority government of the sort India had in 1996-98, constantly in danger of being toppled.
In 1996, Deve Gowda was a strong chief minister in Karnataka. He happily came to Delhi to become Prime Minister. He found to his dismay that as PM he had pomp and splendour but little real power, and lasted less than a year. Meanwhile, his power base in Karnataka eroded, and on return he couldn’t become the powerhouse he once was. That’s surely a lesson for Modi.