Gujarat’s hardline Chief Minister Narendra Modi is surely on cloud nine these days. The new poster boy of the right-wing BJP has reasons to be happy. First, he got a major reprieve from the Supreme Court in connection with the post Godhra cases. (The apex court recently sent back to lower court slain former Congress MP Ehsan Jaffri widow Zakia Jaffri’s plea seeking a probe into Modi’s alleged role in the post Godhra riots cases.) The apex court, however, directed the trial court to look into the matter.
Secondly, a US Congressional report had showered praises on Modi for “impressive developments and effective governance” in his state. The encouraging US report has further stirred up BJP cauldron and triggered the debate on whether or not he is the best prime ministerial candidate in the saffron party.
With celestial omens clearly in his favour, the Gujarat Chief Minister recently sat on a three-day fast, which was viewed by many as an attempt to improve his hardline image, especially among the minorities (Muslims).
Buoyed by the pleasing circumstances, a visibly delighted Modi hoped that his fast named "Sadbhavana Mission" will bring peace, harmony and unity in his state.
However, bringing peace and prosperity alone in Gujarat is not Modi’s only agenda as he is clearly preparing himself for a larger role in the national politics. However, his possible ascension to the throne of Prime Minister would be bumpy and full of obstacles because of the controversies shadowing him.
There is no doubt that the Gujarat leader is seen by many as the tallest of BJP's 'gen next' leaders, but he also faces stiff opposition both from within the saffron brigade and outside.
<b>RSS & Muslim appeasement</b>
Modi’s new-found love for Muslims will not go down well with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which would like him to continue as the poster-boy of its Hindutva ideology.
This is evident from the fact that Vishwa Hindu Parishad boycotted Modi’s three-day show, accusing the Gujarat Chief Minister of compromising the Hindutva card of the RSS and trying to appease Muslims for political gains.
The RSS core leadership is visibly unhappy with this new 'avatar' of Modi, even though the hardline leader is trying his best to soften his image. Modi’s tactics to woo Muslims at the cost of delayed justice to the widow of Haren Pandya, murdered former home minister of Gujarat, is further irritating the RSS.
Yet, Modi can relax as he enjoys extremely favourable overall relations with the RSS- the parent organisation of all right-wing groups including BJP. If predictions of his comfortable victory for a third successive term are anything to go by, Modi has surely thrown himself as a formidable contender for post of prime minister.
The American government, which is now singing praises of the BJP leader, had some time back denied Modi a visa suspecting his involvement in 2002 anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat. Interestingly, the American establishment then accused him of curtailing religious freedom.
The US report, which pitches him against Congress’ prince Rahul Gandhi - also seen by many as party’s prime ministerial candidate in scheduled 2014 elections - suggests that the 2014 General Elections could be an out and out Rahul Vs Modi affair.
Underlining that, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s mysterious illness has further paved way for Rahul Gandhi’s foray into national politics, which has also been necessitated by graft allegations facing the government of Dr Manmohan Singh.
Under these circumstances, the US establishment now sees Rahul as someone who is most likely to be put forward for the top job in 2014 polls.
However, it outlines that the young Congress leader is expected to face stiff competition from Narendra Modi if the main opposition party projects him as its top contender for the PM’s post.
The main opposition is likely to take full advantage of the anti-incumbency factor brewing against the ruling Congress party mainly due to its unpopular decisions affecting the ‘aam admi’.
The crucial US report also raises questions about Rahul Gandhi’s abilities to lead the party, his failing appeal in masses, which was evident in recent Assembly Elections, his unpredictable image in public, his reputation for gaffes and his political immaturity.
This is where Modi seems to be having a clear advantage over Rahul. Modi’s reputation as an able administrator, a visionary leader with mass support combined with his excellent oratory skills will be his biggest weapons to counter Rahul Gandhi’s challenge for the top job.
<b>Divisions in BJP</b>
Although the US report has formed a solid basis for Modi’s supporters to project him as an ideal prime ministerial candidate, the situation in the main opposition party is still unclear.
Despite RSS-backed Nitin Gadkari at the helm of BJP affairs, the party seems to be divided in two camps – one led by Arun Jaitley and the other led by Sushma Swaraj.
The Gujarat leader is likely to face stiff competition from several BJP stalwarts, who are on the equal footing in the prime ministerial race. BJP veterans like LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha have been harbouring prime ministerial aspirations, which can create roadblocks in Modi’s election as a consensus candidate.
<b>Keeping NDA allies intact</b>
While ensuring that the entire party rallies behind one universally accepted leader, the BJP central leadership will have to think about keeping the National Democratic Alliance partners like Nitish Kumar’s Janta Dal(United) and Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab intact as they could part ways if Modi’s name is endorsed for the top job.
The ghost of 2002 Gujarat riots still haunts Modi and it could well lead to NDA’s disintegration since many of its allies see him as a blot to their secular credentials.
In hushed tones, a section of BJP leaders concedes that Modi is not seen as a unifying leader, who can strengthen the party’s support base further. The BJP high command will also have to deliberate on the domestic and international ramifications of electing Modi for the prime ministerial role.
If poll analysts are to be believed, Modi can become prime minister only if the party crosses the 180 mark in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and reaches a point where it can run the coalition without succumbing to coalition partners. Modi can emerge as a natural choice in such a scenario but till then, the party will prefer to keep its cards close to the heart.
With recent opinion polls showing a difficult road ahead for the UPA, the mood in the main opposition is upbeat. BJP, after having failed to make electoral gains despite UPA government’s failure to avert terror attacks and keep inflation in check, the main opposition will leave no stones unturned in ensuring the defeat of Congress in next polls.
But, BJP’s gains in the coming elections will depend on its tackling of the leadership question. At the moment, Modi clearly has an edge over his colleagues in the party. His grip over the party and his clout in the Sangh Parivar is undeniable. The party also seems to be basking in the glory of its charismatic campaigner, who is capable of bringing BJP's core vote to the polling booths.
Only time will tell, if a “changed Modi” can revive the fortunes of BJP and make Muslims forget the bitter memories of 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.