Friday, June 22, 2012

OF PRIME IMPORT - The Bihar chief minister may have caused a salutary churning

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something reassuring about the controversy centred on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s views on the qualifications necessary for an ideal Prime Minister of India. Although his interview to a financial daily has set the cat among the pigeons, its impact may prove to be salutary.

Instead of fudging the choices likely to be offered to the electorate in 2014 (or, perhaps, earlier), the main opposition party and the National Democratic Alliance are being encouraged to announce their preferred choice well in advance. Since India doesn’t have a system of primaries, the political churning likely to result from Nitish’s sharp intervention may well prove the most democratic way of parties and alliances arriving at an informed choice well before an election.

In the event of an outright NDA victory in the general election, the country may at least be blessed with a Prime Minister who, apart from enjoying a majority in the Lok Sabha, had also sought and secured the endorsement of the people. If nothing, the pre-election churning may well prevent a repetition of the Janata Party experiment between 1977 and 1979 when complications arose from a failure to blend a resounding mandate with a clear choice of leader.

Of course, it is unlikely that the enrichment of the democratic process was foremost in the mind of the Bihar Chief Minister when he gave his diplomatically-worded but yet very candid interview earlier this week. Nitish has never concealed his wariness of the man who, for all practical purposes, is now regarded by the Bharatiya Janata Party as first among equals: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. By suggesting that any future Prime Minister must have impeccable secular credentials and feel for the poorer states of India, as opposed to developing the already developed regions, Nitish was questioning the wisdom of upgrading Modi from a powerful regional leader to the highest rung of national politics. He also made it apparent that would have nothing to do with any formation that went to the polls with Modi at the helm. In effect, he issued an ultimatum to the BJP to either keep Modi confined to Gujarat or face the consequences.

It is almost certain that Nitish timed his intervention to take advantage of the churning within the BJP. Since the defeat of 2009, the BJP has been struggling to maintain a semblance of coherence which has led to its failure to take full advantage of the UPA’s wayward record of governance. What is referred to in shorthand as the BJP’s unending crisis was occasioned by its inability to throw up a leader capable of stepping into the shoes of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo. Within the community of saffron activists, Modi was unquestionably the person with the greatest personal popularity. However, his awkward relationship with the RSS prevented the party from translating his appeal into responsibility. Following prolonged back-channel negotiations, that issue was finally resolved at the Mumbai National Executive in May when Modi was, for all practical purposes, anointed as the successor to Advani. The formal coronation, however, was left pending till the outcome of the Assembly election in Gujarat. If Modi repeats his earlier victories, he will be thrust into the national stage, well in time for the 2012 election.

Yet, despite his cult following among activists, question marks over Modi’s ability to steer the BJP into power at the Centre persist. The sceptics can be divided into three broad categories. First, there is a group of RSS full-timers who are repelled by Modi’s fierce individualism and his disregard for a collegiate style of functioning. They are furious with Modi for totally bypassing the RSS in the conduct of governance. Secondly, there are some veteran leaders and their protégés who are mindful that Modi’s rise will involve their own eclipse. Finally, there are the pragmatists who are doubtful of Modi’s ability to build an effective coalition. Their concerns centre on the recognition that the BJP’s reach is limited by geography and that there has been no worthwhile expansion of the party (except in Karnataka) since 2004. Will a Modi-led BJP, they ask, be left friendless in 2014, just as Vajpayee was in 1996?

Nitish’s threat to walk out of the NDA in the event of Modi being named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was primarily aimed at the pragmatists in the BJP. With the party out of the reckoning in large tracts of the country, the possible loss of a valued ally in Bihar would further undermine its chances to be at the undisputed helm of a non-Congress government in 2014. In effect, Nitish has posed an uncomfortable question to the BJP: do you want to be in power or merely fly the flag?

This is a question that BJP pragmatists, including many who have no real objections to Modi as long as he can steer the party to a tally of 180 seats, cannot afford to ignore. The fact that RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat has come out in favour of the BJP’s right to choose its own prime ministerial candidate is likely to ensure that discordant voices in the BJP remain silent for the moment. Although Modi is no longer linked with political Hindutva, the RSS chief has let it be known that the Gujarat Chief Minister is back in favour with Nagpur. This implies that Modi has prevailed in the inner-party battle to secure for himself a pre-eminent national role.

This is not to suggest that Nitish’s intervention will fall completely on deaf ears and that there will be no option left for the Janata Dal (United) but to walk out of the NDA in the coming year. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the coming months will witness a serious attempt by the BJP to address some of the key concerns raised by Nitish.

On the issue of secularism, there are already indications that sadbhavna, particularly the need to rise above sectarian differences in a common quest for development, will be an important plank in Modi’s re-election bid in Gujarat. To what extent this approach pacifies his detractors is unknown. What is however clear is that the BJP does not propose to go into battle in 2014 flying the banner of assertive majoritarianism.

Likewise, the Gujarat polls may see Modi fine-tune his message of aggressive development to accommodate the concerns of those unable to cope with the vagaries of the market economy. Modi is unlikely to ever compromise on the efficiency quotient of government, but he will walk the extra mile to commit himself to a compassionate administration that actually delivers. Modi has consciously detached himself from the poverty glorification rhetoric of the socialists and this has prompted his detractors to see him as an Indian version of an American Tea Party activist. The Gujarat election may see him tweaking this message. He may well be inclined to link poverty alleviation with transparency and efficiency in government. Modi is one of the most effective political communicators after Vajpayee. The imagery he is likely to use in Gujarat will almost certainly also be aimed at a wider, pan-Indian audience.

At the end of the day, successful leadership depends on popular perceptions. Modi’s strength is charisma based on purposeful, no-nonsense leadership. Today, this style appeals to the middle classes exasperated by the government’s economic ineptitude. Repackaged with a dose of personal integrity, it has the potential of capturing the attention of a larger constituency.

Nitish knows that. This is why he has sought to knock Modi out of the race before the bandwagon starts rolling.

The Telegraph, June 22, 2012

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