It’s nearly a year before Indians will go to the polls in the world’s most populous election, but Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi looks ever more like the man with the easiest path to become India’s next prime minister.
Eleven months is a long time in the politics of any country, so there’s no guarantee, and even if Modi winds up as prime minister, it will be after a long-fought slog. But the decision last week of the conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) to anoint Modi as the leader of its 2014 parliamentary campaign makes Modi the indisputable, if unofficial, leader of the BJP efforts to regain power after what will be a decade-long hiatus in opposition.
Modi faces plenty of obstacles, too, within his own party and the wider National Democratic Alliance coalition, of which the BJP is the largest participant.
But the fundamental fact is that Modi is now the BJP and NDA standard-bearer and he’ll playing offense against the governing Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). A tired prime minister Manmohan Singh will likely leave office in 2014 after a decade of missed opportunities, above all having presided over an underperforming economy. Moreover, the likely Congress standard-bearer, Rahul Gandhi, seems a hesitant and reluctant leader, even as the party moves more fully toward consolidating under his leadership. Whereas Modi, after a decade in regional government, personifies a triumphant hunger to gain power and jumpstart India’s economy, Gandhi personifies the listlessness of a fourth-generation scion of a political dynasty that’s been intermittently in power since India’s independence in 1947.
That doesn’t mean that the residual power of the Gandhi family brand of the rougher edges or internal strife within the BJP and the NDA won’t scuttle Modi’s chances — polls show that Congress remains relatively unpopular and that, Indian voters aren’t quite completely sold on the BJP, the ‘saffron party’ nonetheless remains in a very good position to benefit from Congress’s expense.
The 2014 election will determine the membership of the Lok Sabha ( लोक सभा), the 552-member lower chamber of the Indian parliament. The governing United Progressive Alliance holds 226 seats, of which Congress itself holds 203 seats; the NDA holds 136 seats, of which the BJP itself holds 115 seats. The Third Front, a coalition of communist and other leftist third parties, holds 77 seats, and the so-called Fourth Front, which is dominated by the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party) based in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, holds 25 seats.
Another 79 seats are held by independents or other parties not aligned with any larger coalition, including the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), a center-left party based in Bhiar and Jharkhand that had been a coalition partner of the BJP for 17 years before severing its ties with the BJP earlier this month. JD(U) president Sharad Yadav and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had long warned that Modi was an unacceptable choice to lead the NDA in 2014, in part to due to the fact of his reputation for divisiveness that stems back to his earliest days as chief minister of Gujarat, a position he’s held since 2001.
But Modi has been plagued by the legacy of riots in 2002 that led to the deaths of over 1,000 Muslim Gujaratis, conducted by Hindu Gujaratis in retribution for an attack against a train of Hindu pilgrims by Islamic fanatics. Modi and the regional government he led at the time was accused of encouraging the violence. The black mark on his record has not, even today, been completely erased — Modi has only recently been permitted to travel to the European Union, he was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2005, and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently disinvited Modi from delivering the keynote address to the Wharton Indian Economic Forum conference in March. Modi has never apologized for the incident, and it seems nearly certain that he’ll have to make some sort of peace with the ghosts of 2002 in order to become prime minister in 2014 by reaching out to reassure India’s religious minorities.
Nonetheless, it’s also his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister that forms the basis for Modi’s national ambitions, where GDP growth has trended higher that the Indian average — and unemployed has trended much lower — during Modi’s time in office. Modi and the BJP was reelected in an overwhelming victory for a third consecutive term in December 2012. The steady drumbeat among BJP rank-and-file to anoint Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate has increased since his victory, when he addressed his supporters in the more national Hindi language, not the local Gujarati language. Though Gujarat is not India’s most populous state, its 60 million residents mean that it rivals Italy, France and the United Kingdom in terms of population.
That’s made Modi a star within the Indian business community, but in a country with around 400 million living in poverty, Modi will have to build a coalition of voters that transcends just the most successful, lest the BJP suffer a repeat of its disastrous 2004 election campaign built around the slogan of ‘India shining,’ a characterization with which a majority of Indian voters disagreed, despite GDP growth rates of nearly 8% in both 2003 and 2004 under former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Moreover, the state of Gujarat has long been a BJP stronghold within India. The BJP’s recent landslide loss last month in the south-central state of tech-strong Karnataka, though it owes more to local BJP infighting and corruption scandals, highlights the fact that the BJP currently governs none of the country’s southern states, and the BJP continues to struggle in the more Muslim parts of northeastern India. Modi has shown that he’s a consistent crowd-pleaser in Gujarat, but he’s had a more mixed record when he’s campaigned outside of Gujarat — his campaigning in Karnataka had no effect on what was already mostly a lost cause for the BJP.
Gandhi, on the other hand, will have to do a better job in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (with nearly 200 million residents), where Congress won only a handful of seats (24) in the February/March 2012 legislative assembly elections. Though the BJP hardly did much better (47 seats), the Samajwadi Party romped to victory with 224 seats, replacing the previous government of the center-left Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which ended up in second place with 80 seats. Like the Samajwadi Party, the BSP is based primarily in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and its 21 national MPs are part of the wider leftist Third Front in the Lok Sabha. Akhilesh Yadav, the young Samajwadi chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is already calling on Kumar’s JD(U) to join a united, wider third force of non-Congress, non-BJP parties in advance of next year’s election.
Moreover, the crippling infighting that led to the BJP’s Karnataka disaster looms as a tale of caution for Modi, whose prickly confidence has already ruffled the feathers of some of the BJP’s old-guard leadership from the Vajpayee era, most notably former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, who helped found the modern incarnation of the BJP and served as India’s minister of home affairs from 1998 to 2004 alongside the more moderate Vajpayee. Advani led the BJP into the 2009 election, though he promptly resigned as leader of the opposition after the party lost 17 seats, in part due to Advani’s image as a hardline Hindu nationalist — one reason why Modi would be well-served to show some remorse for the 2002 riots.
Upon Modi’s coronation as the head of the BJP’s 2014 election efforts, however, the 85-year-old Advani promptly resigned from all of his party positions, then rescinded his resignation under pressure from the leaders of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement that carries a significant amount of influence within the BJP. But Advani’s resignations came mostly from indignation that his party had rejected him in favor of Modi to lead it in 2014, though Modi has spent much of the rest of the month trying to bring Advani back into the fold.
Before Modi can take on Singh and the Gandhis, he’ll first have to soothe Advani and reassure the party that it doesn’t need the JD(U) alliance in order to win power next year.