If Narendra Modi wants to become prime minister, he needs to do better, argues Amberish K Diwanji.
A pre-election survey claims that in the 2014 election, the Bharatiya Janata Party will emerge as the single largest party with 162 seats, leaving the Congress far behind with just 102.
Further, the National Democratic Alliance will get 186 seats, and the ruling UPA 117.
This leaves 240 seats in the hands of the much-maligned regional parties of India, who will decide which party comes to power. Either way, it won't be a stable coalition!
Of course, there are many months to go for the election, which is due by May 2014. The dilemma that the ruling UPA faces is whether calling an election early (say, by December 2013) will limit the damage, as per this survey, or whether in the months ahead the aura around the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will fade, improving the UPA's prospects.
It is a question no one can answer with surety. In the days ahead, more surveys might show which way the voters's mood swings.
Right now, it really isn't rocket science to say that the BJP is on the upswing. This may not be just because of Modi. The UPA's trail of scams, the sentiment of corruption at the highest levels, and the policy paralysis in the midst of an economic downturn, have all created an anti-incumbency upsurge.
Not all of India's problems are the handiwork of the UPA, but it is the nature of responsibilities that the ruling government will be blamed. An anti-incumbency sentiment after 10 years of rule is only to be expected.
India is no longer in the 1950s or 1960s when people saw no alternative to the Congress.
But will 162 seats help Modi become the prime minister? The halfway mark is 273 (of the Lok Sabha's 545 seats), which means the NDA will need at least 87 more seats. It is quite possible that some parties might agree to support the BJP/NDA on the condition that Modi should not be made PM.
Such conditional support will allow the other parties to throw out the UPA while pushing for a 'secular' BJP. Some political analysts have written one reason why L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj showed their reluctance to endorse Modi was to probably position themselves as the acceptable 'secular' alternative within the BJP, a la Atal Bihari Vajapyee.
The difference is that till not too long ago, Advani was the hardline Hindutva leader and Sushma his loyal lieutenant. So is Advani really so different from Modi?
In the meantime, Modi has tried hard to project a secular image, which at times borders on the farcical. News reports say BJP supporters tell Muslims seeking to attend Modi's rallies to wear skull caps or burqas, to give out the impression of a large Muslim turnout.
Such reports reflect badly not just on the BJP but also on the media that the only way Muslims can be recognised is by their skull caps and burqas. Surely there are better ways of estimating Muslim support, or the lack of it, for Modi.
This is the actual problem with Modi's attempts at secularism: it is all so farcical. To cite an example, popular FM stations keep playing out ads for Gujarat. These ads are in the form of songs sung by none other than Amitabh Bachchan in his deep baritone, often in the hip-hop style, showcasing the beauty and charm of Gujarat. Some ads refer to the Ambe Ma temple, Dwarka, Somnath; another is about the Buddhist heritage at Junagadh; while the rest are about the state's natural beauty.
But what isn't hard to miss is that there is absolutely nothing about Gujarat's Muslim heritage or monuments. No mention about the unbelievable beautiful latticework of the Sidi Sayyid Masjid in Ahmedabad or the Jami Masjid at Champaner (near Vadodara). There surely are more, but these two come to mind immediately.
Is it so hard for Modi or for Gujarat's BJP government to insert just one ad reflecting the state's Muslim history?
It is such prejudices, the way the Muslims of Gujarat are still ignored, that make the BJP's attempts at secularism or Modi's attempt to showcase a liberal face so pathetic.
It is the reason why, despite the massive anti-incumbency wave at present and Modi's popularity with large sections of the people, the BJP remains far away from the 182 seats (which it bagged in 1998 under Vajpayee).
Alas! We in India want to vote out the Congress/UPA, but don't want to vote in the BJP/NDA.
Image: Muslims greet Narendra Modi during his sadbhavana fast in Gujarat.