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24 September, 2013

Playing for high stakes

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party named Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, noted Indian writer and educationist UR Ananthamurthy said he wouldn’t live in a country ruled by him.

Ananthamurthy was voicing his concern over the nomination of Modi, who bears the stigma of facilitating the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, for the high office by the main opposition party. In an orchestrated response to his remark, Modi fans started sending him money orders to buy a one-way ticket to fly out of the country. Several other writers immediately rallied to his defence.

The episode is indicative of the secular sections’ misgivings over Modi’s emergence on the national scene and the Hindutva camp’s scant regard for their concerns as it plays for high stakes.

The BJP heads the National Democratic Alliance, which ruled the country from 1998 to 2004 and is the main opposition in Parliament. It is approaching next year’s elections with high hopes as the ruling United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress, will be facing the electorate with the burden of double incumbency and grave corruption charges. Having lost two successive elections, the BJP desperately needs a win.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindutva’s ideological powerhouse, had planned to declare Modi its prime ministerial nominee last June. It could not accomplish the mission then as Lal Kishen Advani, the party’s tallest leader after former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the chairman of the NDA, remonstrated. As a first step, it made Modi the party’s chief campaigner. This month, it proclaimed him prime ministerial nominee.

Criticism from outside the party notwithstanding, Modi appears to be the best candidature the BJP could find. Advani had led the party unsuccessfully in the elections of 2004 and 2009, and, at 85, age was clearly against him. None of the other leaders at the national level could claim to be his natural successor. Among the state-level leaders, Modi was the one with the most national exposure, even if he received attention for the wrong reasons.

The BJP has been declining continuously for years, and Modi faces an uphill task. Its popularity peaked in 1998 when, with a poll share of 25.59 per cent, it secured 182 seats in the Lok Sabha and emerged, for the first time, as the largest party in the House. This enabled it to attract a number of small parties and cobble up enough support to form the first NDA government.

The Congress party bagged 25.82 per cent of the votes polled in that election but got only 141 seats.

When fresh elections were called in 1999 following the collapse of the NDA government, the BJP’s vote share dropped to 23.75 per cent but it managed to maintain its strength of 182 seats and retained power. The Congress party’s vote share went up to 28.30 per cent but the vagaries of the electoral system restricted its strength in the House to 114 seats.

After the second NDA government completed its five-year term, the BJP went to the polls with the catchy slogan “India Shining” but was rebuffed by the electorate. Its vote share fell to 22.16 per cent and the number of seats dwindled to 138. The Congress party’s vote share fell too, to 26.53 per cent, but its Lok Sabha strength rose to 145, making it once again the largest single party in the house.

In 2009, the BJP’s poll share fell further to 18.80 per cent. Modi has to reverse the declining trend and push up the party’s vote share. A rise of five percentage points can take it back to the 1999 level and possibly once again make it the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

However, the party cannot expect a replication of the old scenario. During 1998-99 it could draw towards it many small parties since they disliked the Congress more than they disliked it. Besides, in Vajpayee it had a leader who had a wide measure of acceptability across the political spectrum.

The first thing Modi did on taking charge of the party’s election campaign was to dispatch his close associate, Amit Shah, to Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest bloc of 80 seats in the Lok Sabha. In 2009 the BJP won only 10 seats there, and was way behind the Samajwadi Party (23 seats), the Congress (20) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (20).

This month 48 persons were killed in communal riots in the Muzaffarnagar district of UP. The Congress and the Left parties have attributed the violence to the BJP strategy of communally polarising the society ahead of the election. Such a strategy may help win more seats but render the task of forging post-election alliances difficult by reviving memories of Gujarat 2002.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 24, 2013.

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