The challenges before Narendra Modi

The challenges before Narendra Modi

Though the Gujarat chief minister may have edged closer to being named a prime ministerial candidate after the BJP chose him to lead its election campaign for national polls in 2014, he is still a polarising figure in Indian politics.

BJP has named Narendra Modi as its poll campaign committee chairman (Photo: AP) BJP has named Narendra Modi as its poll campaign committee chairman (Photo: AP)
Sebastian PT
Sebastian PT
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may or may not officially declare its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 general elections, but it did clearly indicate on Sunday (June 9) who the main - or perhaps only - contender would be, by anointing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its poll campaign committee chairman. All opposition to Modi within the party, including that of patriarch L. K. Advani, who has still not given up his prime ministerial ambitions, was successfully stymied.

"Well begun, half won," said Modi in his first address to party workers after his appointment, announced at the BJP's national executive meet which concluded in Goa on Sunday. The party may not have officially appointed him its prime ministerial candidate yet, but Modi addressed the party workers as if the decision was already taken.

There were jibes galore at the UPA government's policies, the allegations of corruption, the alleged misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and so forth. He also took personal pot shots at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. He spoke about challenges facing the country, and the imperative of tapping the population dividend effectively.

However, Modi's ambition to become Prime Minister will depend on the number of Lok Sabha seats he can get for the BJP in the next election in 2014. If the BJP-led National Development Alliance is to form the next government, the BJP, on its own, needs to get at least 180-200 seats, while its allies get the rest needed to cross the majority figure of 272. (The Lok Sabha has 543 seats.)

A reality check is in order. To start with, Modi's elevation has left BJP a divided house and it has to be seen whether and how Modi is able to take a united BJP team into the 2014 battle. While some of the BJP's allies in the NDA, the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, were quick to congratulate him on his elevation, the fact is other allies such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) have been openly opposed to Modi. Apart from the number of seats the BJP has to win, his ability to manage allies will be another test of his leadership. His image of being a polarising force does not help.

Again, Modi needs to prove he can be a vote-catcher for the party across the country. His popularity in his own state has only been increasing as shown once more in the recent Gujarat by-polls - two Lok Sabha and four Assembly seats - all of which the BJP won.

But elsewhere the BJP's performance has been very different. For instance, it lost its only foothold in the south - Karnataka - in the recent Assembly elections.  Modi campaigned in three Karnataka districts-Bangalore, Mangalore and Belgaum-that were considered strongholds of the BJP. With all predictions of a BJP rout, it was probably a deliberate decision not to expose him elsewhere. The results showed no evidence of any Modi magic: in Bangalore, the BJP's strength dwindled and it got a severe drubbing in Mangalore and Belgaum.

The fact is the BJP does not have the same kind of influence across the country that the Congress does.  Some important questions arise. What will Modi do to improve the BJP's fortunes in the south? Will he be able to stitch an alliance with AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu? Will he try to get B.S. Yeddyurappa back into the BJP in Karnataka? Can he at least hold on to the existing NDA flock? Can he win over Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal? These are not simple challenges.

No BJP resurgence is possible without making a big comeback in Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 Lok Sabha seats. At the moment, BJP is not even confident of crossing 25 in that state. Modi's close aide, the controversial Amit Shah, has already been made the poll-in-charge of UP. Clearly, the BJP is hoping to cash in on the extreme right leaning image of Modi. Will that work? Or will this only help the Congress?

Finally, if Modi cannot deliver a substantial number of seats for the BJP in the next general elections, his chances of becoming Prime Minister will recede even if the NDA takes a shot at forming the next government. Real politics could spring some surprises. Remember 1989? V.P. Singh was projected as the prime ministerial candidate by the Opposition's new political formation. No one objected during the campaign. But when there was a chance to form a new third front government, Chandra Shekhar threw his hat in the ring. A similar situation could arise after the 2014 polls too.

If the dependence on allies becomes critical, Advani could still become a consensus candidate, so could BJP leader Sushma Swaraj or current BJP President Rajnath Singh. There is little doubt that Modi is the most popular leader in the BJP today but he is still a polarising figure in Indian politics-very similar to L.K. Advani in the 1990s. Advani had to step aside for AB Vajpayee, who was seen as having the ability to take everyone along, especially the allies.

Modi's biggest challenge perhaps, in that scenario, will be not to allow history to repeat itself.