National Interest: Modi-hit

Just yesterday, Nitish, Akhilesh were riding a wave. Why they suddenly seem adrift

Advertising and brand guru Alyque Padamsee has a favourite old line: I do not believe in repositioning my brand, but in forcing my rival to reposition his. Alyque may find it particularly revolting that I borrow his old wisdom to explain the impact of Narendra Modi, against whom he has campaigned with such dedication. So my apologies to him. But the fact is, Modi's appearance on centrestage, and the polarisation it promises, has sent some of the BJP's old rivals scurrying for a share of the Muslim vote. As if there is nothing else left to fight for in 2014.

It's got the Congress making silly statements on issues like the Batla House encounter (doesn't matter if it took place under its own watch). But even more specifically, he has forced Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav to reset their own politics in response to his. As a consequence, the chief ministers of India's most populous states, who only recently won handsome victories and looked smug, are both looking stranded now.

It is still too early to say how big a difference it will make in terms of Lok Sabha seats. But the gainer from this, to whatever extent, will be the BJP. No surprise that they are now beginning to make mistakes, a bit like a punch-drunk boxer swaying aimlessly and getting even more battered in the process.

But what do we mean by Modi psyching them into repositioning their own brands? The fact is, both Nitish and Akhilesh won famous majorities on the slogan of better governance and development. Nitish was encashing his success with law and order, road-building and free bicycles, besides, indeed, the fact that he had been able to persuade the BJP to keep Modi out of Bihar. A dominant local leader laying down the law for a national party was a heady "sher ka bachcha" act for the Muslims of Bihar, and many broke ranks with old friend Lalu. Nitish was clean, modern, governance-oriented and secular, while being a senior partner of the BJP. That made for a brand that swept the market.

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