Can Hindu ‘nationalist’ Narendra Modi help BJP?

Updated: Jul 24, 2013, 20:42 PM IST

Ritesh K Srivastava

The country’s main opposition party, the BJP, seems to have learnt a bitter lesson from its electoral debacle in the recently concluded Assembly Elections in Karnataka. Besides anti-incumbency, the poll results, probably, also proved that an anti-UPA campaign and issues like corruption, scams and price rise cannot ensure victory for the party.

So the party has once again gone back on ‘Hindutva’ track and hopes that the emergence of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on the national scene will help it secure support across the country in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The first indication in this regard came when BJP’s Mumbai unit erected billboards projecting Modi as a `Hindu nationalist` and a ‘patriot’ – giving a glimpse of what is going to be a high-voltage 2014 poll campaign .

Party’s ideological mentor, the RSS, and the BJP believe that Modi’s rise has added a fresh dose of ‘Hindutva’ to the party`s stated focus on governance, so a combination of both can work in favour of the party and help it in retaining the core votes while also giving it a chance to grab the floating votes.

Hence, corruption and governance will be the main poll plank of the BJP with ‘Hindu nationalism’ in its centre even if the Modi factor polarises and drifts the minority voters away from the party. BJP’s strategy came to the fore after Modi’s tell-all interview to a news agency in which he claimed innocence in the 2002 riots.

The dynamic BJP leader, who has so far evaded a direct reply on the 2002 riots, did address the issue, besides clarifying on the criticism that he had not used the state machinery to control the communal pogrom.

During the explosive interview, Modi used the analogy of a ‘puppy’ being run over by a car in the context of the 2002 riots. Clearly, the puppy remark, which infuriated many and evoked sharp reaction from the Congress, indicated that the BJP is ready for the 2014 polls with a plan to use Modi to polarise the pro-Hindutva right-wing vote to make up for the minority vote, which might go in favour of its rivals.

Modi later slammed the Congress’ policies and accused the ruling party of hiding behind the "burqa (veil) of secularism" to conceal its administrative failures.

Despite all odds and an aggressive Congress campaign targeting him, Modi has risen as the most powerful leader in the BJP, even sidelining the party veteran LK Advani. Let there be no doubt – Modi is the tallest contender to be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

However, the question which is most pertinent at this juncture is - will Modi, as BJP election campaign chief, succeed in the high stakes contest and lead the party to victory in 2014 polls?

If analysts are to be believed, BJP`s image as a national party has taken a beating after its electoral drubbing in Karnataka civic and Assembly polls. It has minimal presence in crucial states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Also, the party has tasted defeat in Uttarakhand and Himachal, where it was in power till recently. As the situation stands, it will be a herculean task for the party to revive its fortunes in politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and retain power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Even if the BJP manages to win a sizeable number of seats in the 2014 poll, it will find it difficult to cobble up a winning coalition as many of the potential allies may not find him to be ‘secular’ enough. No doubt Modi has succeeded in building a strong campaign team for the 2014 elections but it remains to be seen how the new dispensation will work as a unit.

The BJP’s newly announced central election campaign committee includes all top leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu and Nitin Gadkari, who have been asked to work under Modi`s stewardship. This arrangement, while its settles apprehensions of dissent over the functional duties of top leaders, also underlines the growing stature of Modi in the party.

In UP, Modi and his close aide Amit Shah hope to mobilise Hindu political opinion beyond caste voting patterns, and in Bihar it will be about Modi’s aura.

With 80 Lok Sabha seats, caste makes mobilisation of Hindutva difficult in UP. Major castes like Jatav and Yadav are split between BSP and the SP, and upper castes are leaning towards one or the other party as the BJP isn`t in the race any longer. So the party hopes to get extra votes by leveraging on Modi`s Hindutva credentials in UP. In Bihar, Modi`s backward status and `minority appeasement` by other parties will be the BJP’s strategy to checkmate Janata-Dal (U) and other rivals.

Modi’s elevation has infused a new spirit in BJP cadres even if it has invited strong criticism from Congress and led to a split with the JD (U). The newly formed election committees, which have Modi’s clear stamp over them, faces big challenges in improving the party`s prospects in states like - Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – where assembly polls will be held later this year. The polls in these states will also test Modi`s potential as a vote catcher.

Delhi continues to be the Achilles heel for the BJP. The party does not have a ‘face’ in the national capital and there is no perceptible anti-incumbency wave in its favour even after three terms of the Congress rule.

At the behest of the RSS, the party had sought to send a "collective leadership" message through its new team, which has confused Congress about its line of attack on Modi. The dilemma of the Congress can be understood from the point that even if its central leaders ignore or react to Modi’s charge they end up pushing him further towards the centrestage.

Modi’s projection as the BJP’s PM candidate is a well-thought out strategy of the RSS, which wants the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to become a presidential style contest between the Gujarat strong man and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. However, both the RSS and the BJP are aware that Modi is a highly “polarising and a divisive figure" and over playing the Modi card could harm its prospects and shatter their dream to oust Congress from power in 2014.