Modi, Vajpayee: Two poles apart

Can a leader like Narendra Modi bring in as many seats for the BJP as Atal Behari Vajpayee did is also a question that the party is grappling with

The Budget Session of Parliament, which commences in a fortnight from now, will provide the government the last serious across-the-spectrum opportunity to fund policies that it thinks will best suit its purpose of winning over the voter. While the general election is due only in May next year, this will be UPA-2’s last budget and the last chance to re-package itself through appropriate policies.

The Budget for 2014-15 will be the responsibility of the next government. (The Manmohan Singh administration can only present a vote-on-account before the poll, if it comes next year, so that basic establishment expenses are not blocked.)
As for the Opposition, its shafts will be directed at puncturing the government’s efforts and claims and creating as many obstacles for it as possible so that the Budget Session does not go smoothly and the fog of war begins to form.
A lot of political hot air may, therefore, ensue. The idea will be to distract voters from appreciating any treats the government might be wrapping for them and to sow doubts in their minds about UPA’s record and intentions.
It is only in this sense that the process of preparing for elections will be commencing shortly in our political universe. While there are many (even in the Congress) who really believe that the polls will be held later this year (Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, in order to put some life into their ranks, do not tire of saying this) rather than next, it is unlikely the UPA will officially give the signal until Rahul Gandhi — who, in his new capacity as the Congress Party vice-president, will be both field general and exercise command and control over formations from headquarters — says he is ready to go.
Mr Gandhi has only just begun to give attention to making staff changes at various levels at the Centre and in the states. These processes can take time. If the generational shift in the Congress is envisaged by Mr Gandhi as coinciding with election preparations so that a new crop of leaders may emerge, there may be inner-party heart-breaks, tensions and mini-revolts that need factoring in besides the usual balancing of caste, region, religion equations which are routine and common to all parties.
This is on the party side for the Congress. On the government side too, a time of serious preparation is needed, and dollops of luck. If monsoons turn out good, the prices dip, and some of the big ticket investments begin to materialise, a suitable platform of hope and propaganda can be erected and the government can soak in the sunshine. But if rains are deficient, and the economic signals mixed, it might be deemed prudent to go to the country sooner rather than later.
For the Congress, there could also be a third, unspoken, aspect to consider in timing the election: how much strategic confusion may be expected to be generated within the BJP the longer the Modi versus the rest debate continues in saffron ranks?
Narendra Modi has certainly raised his profile with a third consecutive win in Gujarat, giving the impression of being the first among equals, a place held not long ago by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. This is indeed a deep irony, for Mr Vajpayee was known for his inclusive politics within the parameters of RSS-BJP thought, the diametric opposite of Mr Modi.
In a country known for its baffling diversity, can a leader like Mr Modi bring in as many seats for the BJP as
Mr Vajpayee did is also a question that the party is grappling with. So are its allies or prospective allies who like to guard their minority votes — not just Nitish Kumar but also the likes of J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik.
A defeat in the Assembly election would have sidelined the Gujarat chief minister and posed difficult questions for the BJP at the national level about the politics of polarising votes on communal lines as sharply as Mr Modi loves to do. Today the Gujarat leader’s victory — and his too well-known political idiom — is shaking up the BJP leadership structure and gnawing at its self-confidence which was at a low ebb anyway on account of the bruising recent election defeat in Himachal Pradesh, inability to hold on to power in Uttarakhand, and the disturbing goings-on in poll-bound Karnataka where state election is due in two months.
Factions for and against Mr Modi have come up even in the RSS, providing us a rare glimpse of cracks within the Hindutva mother body that has always prided itself on its brute discipline, dedication to its cause (“rashtravadi nishtha”), unshakeable unity in facing the world beyond its four narrow walls, and — not least — ability to force its will on the BJP, its protégé and political arm.
Such is the confusion in top BJP-RSS circles that the jettisoning of Nitin Gadkari as party president has offered no relief. His successor Rajnath Singh, only just appointed, is on bended knees pleading with party groups and groupies not to publicly endorse Mr Modi for Prime Minister. But he himself can only look on helplessly as the Gujarat chief minister proceeds to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in a high-profile visit to participate in a conclave with the so-called Hindu “sadhu-sants”, or holy men, who control the various “akharas” or sects, a meeting that is designed to underline Mr Modi’s Hindutvawadi credentials, rather than blur them for wider electoral considerations.
With circumstances such as these besetting the BJP camp, the Congress may find it worthwhile to let the intra-saffron parivar contradictions stay on simmer for as long as possible.
Ordinarily, at the end of two consecutive terms, even if the shadow of corruption scandals had not touched it, the party should have been up for easy dethronement. But the political contours of the day are refusing to throw up an obvious winner in the next election. The normal third front-type aspirants are also badly missing the pan-India secularist glue and anti-big bourgeois rhetoric and argument that the Left usually provides to impress subaltern voting sections.

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