Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, chose Independence Day, August 15, to launch his campaign to become prime minister. He is not formally the BJP’s official candidate, but makes no bones about his ambition. Even as Manmohan Singh made one more tepid Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, Modi lambasted him in a rival speech that had his cohorts cheering wildly.
Modi declared contemptuously that Singh was so busy acting as a servant to the Gandhi family that he had forgotten about serving 1.2 billion Indians. He attacked Singh for being soft on Pakistan, for the crash of the rupee, for inflation and unemployment and misgovernance. He challenged Singh to a one-on-one debate on how to run the country. Given his oratorical skills and Singh’s lack of them, it would be a one-sided contest.
The BJP party cadres love Modi, and are delighted with his offensive. The media are agog with Modi’s speech. Many are analysing the next election as a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi affair.
Sorry, but such talk is idle rubbish. Prime ministers in India are not chosen after a gladiatorial contest between two armed combatants. They are not chosen directly by the people at all, as in the US. Rather, Indian voters choose only a single Member of Parliament from each constituency. Once in a while a national wave can drown local issues (as after Indira Gandhi’s death), but typically elections in each constituency focus intensely on local issues and the abilities of individual local candidates. National politics can look very remote at the grassroots level. To see every local contest as a Modi-versus-Rahul battle is pure fantasy.
These decentralised battles decide who gets elected to Parliament. Whether Modi beats Rahul Gandhi in opinion polls, or defeats Manmohan Singh in debates, is irrelevant. What matters is how many seats the NDA can get in the election, and how many additional allies it can garner after the elections produce a hung Parliament.
The answer has already come in several opinion polls. All show that a Modi-led BJP has no chance of heading the next government. One typical poll, co-sponsored by Times Now, showed the UPA getting 136 seats, the NDA getting 156 seats, and other parties getting the balance of 251 seats. Voters may be totally disillusioned with Manomhan Singh, but they are not enthused by a Modi-led BJP either.
Is there any way an NDA with 156 seats can get additional post-election allies holding another 117 seats, enough for a bare majority? Almost impossible. It might be remotely possible if the NDA is led by somebody with wide appeal, who can charm and win friends rather than raise hackles. Atal Behari Vajpayee was such a person. Narendra Modi emphatically is not.
He is unquestionably a strong and efficient administrator. Gujarat has prospered under him, and given him three successive terms of office. But he is known as a man who tolerates no opposition, cuts all colleagues to size, and rules with an iron fist. Such a person will fail miserably as prime minister of a disparate coalition that can be brought down by any of several minor partners.
Under Vajpayee, the BJP was able to attract regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee. Vajpayee assured them that the BJP would not pursue any of its traditional communal policies while in office. He had the flexibility and credibility to deliver.
Modi has neither the same flexibility nor credibility. He prides himself on Hindutva. He can’t even bear to wear the traditional Muslim cap or scarf offered by Muslim well wishers. Indian Muslims hate him for complicity in the killing of over 1,000 Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots. They do not believe the leopard will change its sports as Prime Minister.
So, regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu treat Modi as poison. They did business with Vajpayee. They refuse to do business with Modi.
Let nobody think that these regional leaders have high moral principles. No, they are cynical opportunists. But as opportunists, they have made a simple calculation: will extra Hindu votes brought in by Modi compensate for the loss of Muslim votes? The answer is an overwhelming “no”. And that’s that.
Modi may grab the headlines with his driving ambition and rousing speeches. He may greatly enthuse his RSS cadres. But for all his ambition and energy, the hard political reality is that he cannot become prime minister. As Katrina Kaif said in a different context, in her item number Sheela ki jawani…
“I know you wanna get it
But you’re never gonna get it,
Tere haath kabhi na aani.”