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The 'frenemy' factor in poll calculations

By Aditi Phadnis
February 18, 2014 09:27 IST
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By annoying potential allies ahead of the polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate is playing a dangerous game but if he wins, he gets it all, says Aditi Phadnis

When Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi launched a diatribe against the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha during his recent Bhubaneswar rally, people including some in his own party, were confused. "Why attack a leader in such personal terms, especially when he could be a potential ally?" mused a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament in Parliament's Central Hall.

At his rally, Modi spoke a few phrases in Odiya, just to highlight the fact that Patnaik, apart from running Odisha to the ground causing people to flee the state and take shelter in Gujarat, didn't even know the language of the state.

The BJD MPs by contrast were amused and not unhappy: "Our party has reacted with great sobriety. It is all very well to say our CM doesn't know Odiya. But to say people of Odisha go to Gujarat for alms..." and he echoed Patnaik's brief statement: "The people of Odisha will never give Modi a chance".

This from a party which has won every election in the state.

This is no different from what Modi has been doing everywhere. In Uttar Pradesh, he exhorted people to throw out both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. While his attack on the Congress was understandable, why roil the waters and annoy those who could help you reach 272 seats, given the fact that the most recent poll also gives the National Democratic Alliance, in its current form, a number well below that mark? In West Bengal, he criticised Mamata Banerjee bitterly.

The only potential ally he has spared so far is the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu.

The reason is two-fold. First, pre-election rhetoric is very different from political positions taken after elections. You only have to read Minister for Food K V Thomas' book on Sonia Gandhi, released earlier this week, to recall the bitter war of words and the attacks on Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins by Sharad Pawar before the Nationalist Congress Party was launched. In 1999, at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee, P A Sangma launched the attack on Gandhi and "Pawar started from where Sangma stopped.

He praised her role as president of the party in bringing about unity in the party and making it vibrant. Then he went on to add that the party was not able to counter the propaganda on Sonia's foreign birth. 'We have to seriously think about this,' Pawar asserted," the book says.

A few years later, without explaining or clarifying, the NCP entered into an alliance with the Congress not just at the Centre but also in Maharashtra. On its website, the NCP might have airbrushed its history but witnesses to its birth are still around.

The same goes for the SP and BSP. Both are supporting the Congress, but consider the UP assembly election just 18 months ago when an all-out attack was launched by both of them on Rahul Gandhi, with Akhilesh Yadav challenging Gandhi to name even two trees which grew in the countryside to highlight his distance from the state.

The reason is, of course, that in an election campaign, passions run high and leaders have to gee up their party cadres. Odisha, for instance, is due to have assembly elections shortly after the Lok Sabha elections (the two will probably be held simultaneously). The same goes for Andhra Pradesh (hence the rowdy scenes in Parliament).

But there is no point in being emotional about things. It is entirely possible to support the very people you may have attacked during the campaign, to make the best of a bad bargain. "An election campaign is one thing. The result is another," said a BJP leader laconically.

In Modi's case, there are two additional factors. Today, the BJP is more ally-less than it has ever been. This means that ahead of elections it has more chance of contesting more seats on its own, and, therefore, the chance of winning more on its own. Modi wants to be the decisive and strong leader India, he feels, is craving for, unhampered by querulous allies.

It is a dangerous game, but the winner does get it all.

The second: he wants no NDA ally to do deals behind his back. Who is the convenor of the NDA after George Fernandes took ill and the Janata Dal-United exited the alliance? Actually, nobody.

So Modi is handling alliances himself. Theoretically, L K Advani should be the one entrusted with that job. He's the working chairman. But trust is not a word one hears much in the BJP these days.

So don't be fooled. Pre-poll positions have nothing to do with post-poll stances. It is the numbers that matter.

Image: A supporter Bharatiya Janata Party, wearing a mask of Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for BJP and Gujarat's chief minister, waits for the start of a rally

Photograph: Reuters

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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