Not Modi, not Gandhi

With a year to go, the general election is being painted and promoted as a Rahul-versus-Modi contest. It's a tidy, appealing binary, given that Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi appear to have profoundly different political instincts and personality types. But while it may be tempting to think of Election 2014 as a two-horse race, the political field may be less settled or predictable in reality. In all probability, the real deciders will be regional forces whose support to one or the other pole, Congress or BJP, cannot be taken for granted.

Take, for instance, B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. His importance to the BJP fortunes is being read into the extent of the party's loss in Karnataka's civic polls, in which the Congress won with a margin that exceeds its last victory. To be sure, civic polls often hinge on local contexts and candidates; they seldom reliably foreshadow the national-level decision. Yet it is clear that Yeddyurappa's exit has cost the BJP in Karnataka, its sole trophy in the south. The Congress faces a similar challenge in Andhra Pradesh, where Jaganmohan Reddy's breakaway YSR Congress threatens to wrest much of its turf. Admittedly, a post-poll alliance between Yeddyurappa's political front and the BJP is not ruled out, nor between the YSR Congress and the Congress. But these alliances are likely to be negotiated on terms that acknowledge the power of the regional vote-catcher. At this week's end, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's rally in Delhi's Ram Lila Maidan will be another reminder of the shifting calculus of smaller players that the two main national parties must remain mindful of. The Bihar chief minister's show may be projected as an attempt to raise the pitch on the demand for granting special status to his state, but it is also a positioning exercise at a time when Modi has become the BJP's undeclared PM candidate.

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