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Could it be Modi v Rahul in 2014?

Last updated on: September 16, 2011 21:51 IST

Could it be Modi v Rahul in 2014?

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Given the prevailing state of flux in the polity, it is early days yet to predict a presidential polarisation of the Modi versus Rahul variety. But it cannot be ruled out, Neerja Chowdhury

The US Congressional Research Services report, projecting the 2014 electoral battle in India as one between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, has raised two critical questions. Can Modi be the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate and will it be a battle between him and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family?

Modi, three times chief minister of Gujarat, is one of the four possible prime ministers from the BJP, were the saffron party be in a position to for a national government, L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley being the other three. So far, BJP chief Nitin Gadkari has ruled out the projection of a prime ministerial candidate before the elections.

However, the politically-savvy Modi, who is believed to have the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, lost no time in seizing the two opportunities that came his way this week to turn the situation to his advantage and fast forward his plans to make his presence felt on the national scene.

He used the Supreme Court's order in the 2002 Ehsan Jafri-Gulbarga Society killings in Gujarat to convey the impression that the court had given him a clean chit, which was not the case. The court's ruling did come as a relief to him because it ended its three year supervision of the case and sent the matter back to the trial court, to decide on the issue of Modi's complicity in the riots.

The CRS report -- it is only a research report, rather like what is put out by Indian Parliament's LAARDIS ("Libarary and Reference Research Documentation and Information) -- could not have come at a more opportune time for Modi, praising him for his governance, and projecting him as a possible prime minister in 2014.

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The major hurdles in Modi becoming PM

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PM or not, it may enhance his profile, and help him in the forthcoming elections to the Gujarat assembly due in the winter of 2012.

There is no denying that Modi will play a major role in the BJP in the months to come, if he wins the state elections yet again. This could make him a strong contender for the presidentship of the BJP end 2012 when party elections are due, and undoubtedly be its chief campaigner.

As of now, there are three major hurdles in Modi becoming PM. He has not so far made much of an impact outside Gujarat, whenever he has gone to campaign for the National Democratic Alliance.

But given the changing mood in urban middle class India today, angry at the multiple scams, it is possible that, as a strong leader, who does not have corruption charges against him, he comes to acquire an appeal for this section.

But, even the middle class has tended to prefer a liberal faces, like that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That is why Advani did not really click nationally, even though he had tried to acquire a more moderate image later. Modi too is cast in the same mould.

The second question is: Would Modi's appeal go beyond central India -- say Gujarat, maybe Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisagarh? What about the south, east India, or even Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?

Thirdly, he would face trouble being accepted by the BJP's allies in the NDA -- unless the saffron party gets a majority on its own. The BJP's geographic presence today accounts only for around 200 Lok Sabha seats, and even if it sweeps in all of them, it does not reach the majority figure.

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Rahul be playing a larger role in the coming weeks and months

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The Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal -- and may be even J Jayalalithaa, who is known to enjoy a rapport with the Gujarat CM -- could accept him, but that would not be the case with Nitish Kumar or other regional parties who depend on Muslim support.

Modi's announcement that he would sit on a three day "upvas" (fast) for "unity and harmony" was an attempt to undo the damage done to his image, without directly referring to the 2002 violence or apologising for what was a shameful chapter in India's history.

After all, as his opponents have pointed out, directly involved or not, he was the state's chief minister at the time, and even Vajpayee as PM had urged him to observe his "raj dharma".

Even as there are the plus sides to his leadership -- he is bold and decisive, a workaholic, without family which can misuse his official position, is the darling of corporate India, with his 11 percent growth story, and he has managed to identify with Gujarati pride -- he has not been able to live down the terrible blot of communal killings in Gujarat in 2002.

The timing of his initiative is being seen as an attempt to upstage the rath yatra against corruption announced by Advani, which had also taken BJP leaders by surprise.

As for Rahul Gandhi, there is clearly every indication that he will be playing a larger role in the coming weeks and months, and may become working president of the Congress this yearend.

Though Sonia Gandhi has returned after her surgery abroad and is recovering, Rahul is expected increasingly to be the interface between her and the party and he may also shoulder some of the responsibilities that she has carried so far.

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Sonia may want Rahul to take over soon

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The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family may be seen as the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress in the next general elections, but he is unlikely to be designated so officially before the elections.

Given the way the UPA is losing ground, it is not a risk the Congress will take -- unless Rahul is appointed PM before the next general elections, and leads the party to polls in that capacity.

There is a section within the Congress Party which feels that Rahul should takeover as PM sooner rather than later, and not wait till 2014, if there is to be any chance at course correction. The government led by Dr Manmohan Singh has been rapidly losing ground, with multiple scams eroding its credibility and authority.

And that if Rahul has to take over "soon, it would be better that it happens before the elections in Uttar Pradesh next April. For it would be that much more difficult to install him afterwards, if the party fares poorly in UP.

The Congress which had won 22 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 has lost ground in the state and it is argued that the elevation of Rahul as PM might help win the Congress support, as UP would want a champion at the national level. Sonia Gandhi too may want Rahul to take over soon.

Given the prevailing state of flux in the polity, it is early days yet to predict a presidential polarisation of the Modi versus Rahul variety -- though it cannot be ruled out.


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