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It won't be easy for Modi to be the BJP's nominee for PM

December 28, 2012 22:23 IST

'No BJP leader trusts him. His bid for the position will sharpen inner-party rivalries. The RSS is wary of him because he is too much of an individualistic autocrat and has destroyed the Sangh in Gujarat,' says Praful Bidwai.

With Narendra Modi's third consecutive victory in its state assembly, Gujarat has taken a big step backwards and India has suffered a political setback.

The result will raise Modi's ambition to play a major role in national politics, as he so clearly indicated by delivering his victory speech in Hindi.

But it will also infuse more strife, tension and communal poison into Indian politics without removing the major obstacles that Modi faces in his search to win the National Democratic Alliance's nomination as its prime ministerial candidate.

Contrary to hype, Modi's win is far from historic or super-sized. He is only the 13th chief minister in India to be elected a third time in a row. Jyoti Basu in West Bengal and Mohanlal Sukhadia in Rajasthan served five and four terms respectively.

Currently too, there are five chief ministers who are in their third term, including Tarun Gogoi (Assam), Sheila Dikshit (Delhi), Okram Ibobi Singh (Manipur), Naveen Patnaik (Odisha), and Manik Sarkar (Tripura).

Even the Bharatiya Janata Party's uninterrupted win against the Congress since 1995 isn't unique to Gujarat. Other parties too have kept the Congress out of power in six other states for 20 years or longer: Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Sikkim, Tripura and West Bengal (barring briefly, when it was the Trinamool Congress's junior partner).

The BJP won 115 seats, or 63 percent of the 182 constituencies it contested in Gujarat. But this is well short of the target it had set of greatly exceeding its 2002 and 2007 tallies (127 and 117). Its slogan was 150-plus seats!

At least 10, if not 15, of the 115 seats are probably attributable to the fact that midway during the campaign, Modi projected himself as India's future prime minister and mopped up the votes of many in the Gujarat elite who chauvinistically believe that the state gets a raw deal from the Centre and yearn for the glorious days when it gave India high-stature leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and Morarji Desai. Modi tapped into this irrational resentment.

The BJP's latest strike-rate does not bear comparison with the Left Front's three-fourths majority of West Bengal assembly seats between 1977 and 1996, or the Biju Janata Dal's strike-rate of 81 percent in 2000, and its three-fourths majority win in Odisha after it severed links with the BJP in 2009. Even Dikshit won almost two-thirds of the Delhi assembly seats in 1998 and 2003.

Modi can't even claim to be Gujarat's most popular leader in electoral performance. That record goes to the Congress, which won 141 seats with a 52 percent vote-share in 1980, and an even higher 149 seats with a 56 percent vote-share in 1985 thanks to the powerful KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) coalition.

The BJP's latest vote-share was 48 percent, or about one percentage-point lower than in 2007, while the Congress's share rose by one percentage-point to 39 percent.

The BJP did well among the middle and upper classes in the cities: Gujarat is India's most urbanised state, with 58 percent of its people living in cities. But the party did poorly in villages and in the 42-seat Adivasi belt stretching from Banaskantha in central Gujarat to Umergam in south Gujarat.

Contrary to elevated expectations, Keshubhai Patel's Gujarat Parivartan Party, rooted among the Leuva Patel community, made a dent only in Saurashtra, winning eight percent of the vote there, but was marginalised in north, central and south Gujarat.

The BJP's performance was uneven across these regions. Significantly, in north Gujarat, Modi's own backyard, its tally declined from 25 to 16 seats and its vote-share fell below that of the Congress. This highlights the limits of Modi's victory.

Had the Congress put up a spirited fight and taken on Modi on issues where it could effectively combat him -- like his role in the butchery of more than 1,200 Muslims in 2002, his antipathy to religious minorities, and his elitist and slavishly pro-business policies -- it could have given him a run for his money and even defeated him.

But it did not muster the courage to do so, and repeated the weak-kneed strategy pursued since 2002 under Ahmed Patel's stewardship.

There was no reference to secularism and communalism, or justice for the 2002 victims, in the Congress campaign despite the recent favourable judgments in the Naroda-Patiya and other cases. Nor did the Congress highlight the concerns of the poor and underprivileged, while lambasting Modi for neglecting social development and doling out huge favours to Big Business as part of his shamelessly crony-capitalist agenda.

Modi won at least partly by default -- because the Congress has ceased to have coherent policies, a well-defined social base and a will to power. It is as if it had decided to write off Gujarat politically and only put up a token fight.

Nevertheless, this was admittedly less the BJP's victory than Modi's personal triumph. That is because Modi with his personality cult gutted the BJP and reduced to his personal fief. He emasculated the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh too.

Nobody matters in the Gujarat cabinet, but Modi. All ministers are his minions and pawns, without agency. No other party leader counts.

Brand Modi, based on his macho, aggressive persona and deep lack of compassion, is all.

Gujarat's middle class voted for Modi because it admires this brand and see 'Mard (or macho)' Modi as a role model, who can deliver the distorted, lopsided elitist growth model it wants and profits from.

Modi panders to its deep-seated social conservatism, absence of exposure to social reform, intense casteism and hostility towards Muslims.

Modi's brashness, his brazen refusal to own up culpability for the 2002 pogrom and for shielding the guilty, and his continuing derogatory and communal invocation of the 'Delhi Sultanate', all impress the middle class. As does the praise heaped upon him by Gujarat's numerous and reactionary pro-Hindutva NRIs based in America who dutifully obey the rule that migrants tend to be even more conservative than their relatives back home.

Modi claims that he won because of his development record, itself stellar. This claim is false. If development has anything to do with people's welfare and quality of life, and at least reducing hunger and poverty, then Gujarat fares poorly.

Gujarat ranks 13th among 17 major states on the hunger index, a composite of the proportion of people without adequate nutrition, underweight children under five, and infant mortality.

Even Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Assam and West Bengal score better. As do the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 45 percent of Gujarati children under five are malnourished.

Employment has been stagnant in Gujarat since 2004-2005. Its wage rates for casual rural workers rank 14th for males (Rs 69) and 9th for females (Rs 55) among 20 major states.

Between 2005 and 2010, poverty fell in Gujarat by just 8.6 percent, much slower than in Odisha (19.2 percent), Maharashtra (13.7 percent) or Tamil Nadu (13.1 percent).

Between 2000 and 2008, Gujarat's rank among 15 major states in literacy among children above six declined from 5th to 7th. Worse, its rank among people who attend any educational institution fell from 21st to 26th.

Gujarat's sex (female-male) ratio in 2011 was only 918, compared to 940 for India. Its female infant mortality was 51 per 1,000, slightly higher than the national average of 49. Economist Indira Hirway argues that 'the growth story of Gujarat is not inclusive, sustainable, equitable or environment-friendly' and 'there is a disconnect' between economic growth and development.

Even in respect of GDP growth rates, which are relatively high because of a previous growth record, Gujarat lags behind Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha or Chhattisgarh.

In per capita income (Rs 63,996 in 2011), Gujarat is number six, following Haryana (Rs 92,327), Maharashtra (Rs 83,471), Tamil Nadu (Rs 72,993), Uttarakhand (Rs 68,292) or Punjab (Rs 67,473).

The Gujarat victory has strengthened Modi's pre-eminent position in the BJP's 'second-generation' leadership. But it won't be easy for him to claim the BJP's prime ministerial candidacy.

No BJP leader trusts him. His bid for the position will sharpen inner-party rivalries. The RSS is wary of him because he is too much of an individualistic autocrat and has destroyed the Sangh in Gujarat. NDA allies, especially the Janata Dal-United's Nitish Kumar, have openly opposed his bid.

Most vitally, Modi's acceptability among the larger public remains extremely low. He is too much of a divisive, aggressive and toxically communal figure to have an appeal outside the Sangh Parivar's rabid hardcore.

Modi may well find that his victory in a bipolar state like Gujarat can't be replicated in India's quintessentially multipolar polity. He is unlikely to get India's top job -- except in the highly improbable event that the BJP wins 200-plus Lok Sabha seats and then nominates him as the NDA's candidate in a post-poll alliance.

Praful Bidwai