What next in this Mahabharata?

If L K Advani is Bhishma Pitamah, who is Narendra Modi? I guess he has to be Karna who refused to fight while Bhishma was the leader of Duryodhana's army, as Bhishma had slighted him. Like Karna, Modi is not one of the elite caste people who habitually lead parties in Indian politics. He does not trumpet it but he belongs to the OBC category.

Karna finally lost because Krishna and Arjuna devised tricks so that he was deceived and attacked when he least expected it—against the rules of war. But, as they say, everything is fair in love and war (and politics too). Once Advani had thrown his tantrum and then changed his mind back, the situation had altered irretrievably for Modi and the BJP. The differences within the BJP are bound to fester and they will come out nearer to the election when they will do much harm.

The crucial number is the seats won by the BJP on its own. The gamble that the RSS and BJP have taken with Modi as leader is that he will harness not only the orthodox Hindu vote but young aspirational urban vote. Their calculation must be that on its own, the BJP will win 200-plus seats. I have heard estimates of 230 and more. The decision to anoint Modi so early in the campaign was definitely taken with an eye on harnessing this maximal strength.

Advani's resignation, even though withdrawn, throws doubt on this gamble. Indian society values divisions rather than unity. We have 7,000 jatis in which people can be split up and each jati thinks of itself as unique. Combining people is difficult. There are numerous egos. Unless the RSS/BJP can regain their organisational solidarity in time, the target of 200/230 must look fragile.

That is clearly the hope the Congress has and so do many of the erstwhile NDA partners. If this was a game of poker, many Indian political leaders would not win because they show their hand far too early in the game. If Advani wanted to have his way, he should have held back his resignation till one month before the election. The various assorted aspirants for the leadership of the Third Front coalition will not be displaying their ambitions so early in the game. Everyone seems to have forgotten what happened in 2009 when Mayawati was all set to become prime minister at the head of a Third Front government.

That said, what are the possibilities? Anti-Modi forces believe that by emphasising his divisiveness and the 2002 riots, they can alienate the Muslim vote. This may very well be the case but the Muslim vote is not a homogenous mass. Even if they all rejected Modi's development/governance agenda, their votes will not all go to the Congress. There are many claimants of the Muslim vote. How many seats will go to anti-Modi forces will depend on how many Muslim-majority seats there are and then how many parties contest these seats.

Let us assume that all the parties outside a narrow NDA coalition will not combine to form a single front sharing seats. In that case the result may depend on how bad the economy still is come next March—how high the rate of inflation, how low the growth rate, how high interest rates, how low the rupee. These variables affect daily life more than secularism/communalism issues.

Modi is a powerful public speaker and he appeals to young, aspirational India. He talks to them in a language they understand. The Congress has only one powerful speaker—Sonia Gandhi. She alone can match Modi in the ability to reach people across India. But how much she can do in 2014 may depend on her health.

A Third Front can only come about if there is a 1977-style Janata coalition. But egos are likely to prevent that. The BJP had only six aspirants for prime ministership; the Third Front has a dozen. The only positive variable is that each party has a separate regional base. Only in Bihar do the RJD and JD(U) clash. The Congress would prefer the Third Front parties to split and come over to its UPA3 coalition. Divisiveness may yet cancel out the anti-BJP coalition.

It will be a long, hot campaign.

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