National Interest: BJP, the lonely
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There are reasons why it is easy to understand the BJP's jubilation at the Gujarat SIT's reprieve to Narendra Modi, and there are reasons why it isn't. For a full decade now, Modi has been the party's unanointed leader. A star, crowd-puller and vote-catcher, though that claim has never been proven outside his state. So you can see why the BJP should be happy with what they see as Modi crossing one more hurdle on his way to the national stage. The problem, however, is that while he may fire the imagination of the faithful, he would still bring — no matter how many exonerations he collects — the baggage of his past that will make it that much tougher for the BJP to rebuild NDA into a real claimant in 2014. In indictment as much as in exoneration, the Modi phenomenon cuts both ways. It gets more votes from your own, but raises barriers for many likely allies. The issue with Modi is not legal, but political. Even if he is never convicted, or even charged by a court for any role in the 2002 riots, he will continue to be spoilt goods politically. This will reduce the resultant NDA to three parties at best: the BJP, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena, the core of natural allies.
This is not the only contradiction the BJP has to deal with. But this is the most challenging. Modi cannot be the answer to their prayers in 2014 unless he can lead this three-member NDA to a 225-plus mark. The rest will then be found among some of the regional parties, notably one of the Dravidian parties. That, no matter how damaged the UPA is by 2014, looks improbable.
That is why, moments of celebration at legal victories apart, the BJP has to rethink its politics and ideological offering more carefully if it has to have a chance.
The party's central problem is this: even more than who is whose natural ally, coalitions in India will be formed on the basis of who will never go with whom. Because of this, the BJP, even with someone more widely acceptable than Modi in the lead, would need at least 200 seats in the Lok Sabha to have any chance of reaching that half-way mark, whereas for the Congress, 150 could still be the 272 in 2014. This is easy to explain. L.K. Advani often says he is open to aligning with anyone but the five parties that consider the BJP anti-national. These are the Congress, the Left, SP, RLD and IUML. But of the rest too, any party with any hope of getting the Muslim vote would never join an NDA unless it is led by a Vajpayee-like inclusive personality. The BJP hasn't got one even remotely like that, and Modi will be the exact opposite. In fact, with Modi as leader, the alliance will find it impossible even to hold its biggest star today, Nitish Kumar. It was Vajpayee's personality that brought Mamata, Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu into the NDA. With Modi in front, you can write off all of these. Even with a less controversial leader, a first among equals who may emerge closer to the elections from the BJP's current top five, it is difficult to see any of these satraps risking minority votes, particularly when the BJP as an ally cannot bring them many transferable votes in their respective states.
How does the BJP handle this challenge? Or can it? One way is to accept the limitations of its politics and look for that "first among the equals" outside. For example, Nitish, or a Nitish with multi-state appeal if he/she brings a large contingent of MPs. That leader could then be the new, non-communal mukhauta (mask) of the BJP. But ask any of the party's top five (Modi included) and they will ask you, is that why you think they have been in public life for all these decades? They see the Congress declining, its allies chafing and impatient, state after state falling to the opposition, a lurching government, a punch-drunk Rahul and a less and less visible Sonia. All this, with a scam a day, the growing conflict between the government and the institutions and a fast vapourising growth story, convince them that their moment has come. The question they are ducking is, however, is their politics ready to seize it?
In some ways it is, but in many, more important ones, it isn't. What works for them is their chief ministers and regional leaders. The Congress has nobody even remotely comparable to Modi, Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Parkash Singh Badal, Nitish and even B.S. Yeddyurappa in their respective states. If the Shiv Sena and the MNS somehow merge, or come closer in the next two years, the UPA will struggle to get even a third of the seats in Maharashtra. But this is where the good news ends for the BJP.
They have wasted seven years now by failing to address the one issue that limits them to competing for not more than 70-75 per cent of the electorate even in the states where they are strong: suspicion of the minorities and the increasingly liberal-secular-modern urban Indian. Modi apart, many other aspects of their politics are out of tune with the times. It is one thing for them to get the "secular" parties, even UPA allies, to join hands with them in opposition to many central moves, like the NCTC and GST. This is great for embarrassing the Congress. But unless they move their
ideological positioning absolutely to the centre, these alliances will remain transient and fail to grow into partnerships in power. The BJP's economics is one more example, though it is easier to rectify than Hindutva. Every time they block a reformist move or legislation, their own loyal as well as fence-sitting voters take note. If they want an India closest to the "socialist" promise of the preamble of its Constitution as rewritten by a Parliament on stolen time in the Emergency, wouldn't they rather vote for the UPA? In marketing terms, then, what product differentiation does the BJP offer? And in the language of politics, you may just ask them: why can't you see the writing on the wall?