The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections have proved that Narendra Modi is a powerhouse in Gujarat, but a flop show outside it. That should dent his prime ministerial ambitions, and improve the prospects of others.
If indeed the next BJP prime ministerial candidate is to be a three-time chief minister, there are other candidates too. Shivraj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh will bid to become three-time chief ministers in state elections in 2013.
By winning for a third time with an increased majority and vote share in Gujarat, Modi has proved he is among the tallest of regional leaders. But his prime ministerial ambitions depend on his impact in other states.
Modi avoided campaigning for his party in the Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand assembly elections last February, ostensibly because he was busy with his sadbhavana yatra. BJP did badly in Uttar Pradesh, but won in Punjab in alliance with the Akalis, and only just lost in Uttarakhand, not a bad performance.
So, when Modi opted to campaign this time in Himachal Pradesh, it was a good test of his vote-catching capacity outside Gujarat. He needed to show that, with him campaigning personally, the Bharatiya Janata Party would do better than in the states he steered clear of in February. Alas, his party was soundly thrashed in Himachal Pradesh.
This state, in the last five years, had very reasonable economic and social outcomes under BJP rule.
State GDP growth averaged 7.9% per year, above the national average, although slower than its own 8.5% in the previous five years. The state also maintained its good reputation for educational and health achievements.
BJP Chief Minister PK Dhumal and some other ministers were accused of corruption. But so was their main Congress rival, Vir Bhadra Singh. Besides, CAG and Anna Hazare had raised massive national anger against Congress corruption in New Delhi.
In these conditions, BJP should have been able to win HP even without Modi. The fact that it was thrashed despite Modi suggests that his midas touch disappears when he leaves Gujarat.
He has national ambitions, but many rivals want him to stay in Gujarat. In the wider NDA alliance, Modi is seen as a liability because of mass Muslim killings in 2002. Nitish Kumar of Bihar will not allow Modi to head the NDA campaign in 2014. Chandrababu Naidu of TDP thinks he has been sunk in Andhra Pradesh by Modi. Naveen Patnaik in Odisha has parted company with BJP, partly because of Modi.
True, Modi’s victory in Gujarat is impressive. But other BJP chief ministers — Shivraj Singh Chauhan in MP and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh — may do just as well in state elections in 2013.
MP has 29 seats in Parliament, more than Gujarat’s 26. Chauhan is less divisive a figure compared with Modi, and more acceptable to NDA allies. Ditto for Raman Singh.
Maybe BJP will decide not to shift any chief minister to New Delhi. These two chief ministers also have to prove they can win a third time. But if they do, Modi’s performance will cease to look so splendid or exceptional. That could have national reverberations.