Talking Turkey: The race to 7, Race Course Road

Narendra Modi & BJP are riding high, while regional parties with leaders nurse queen-size egos to bid for the top job

Update: 2014-03-13 05:47 GMT
Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh (Photo: PTI)

The decks have been cleared for a general election that promises an exciting finish — Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are riding high in opinion polls, while regional parties and their leaders nurse their king or queen-size egos to bid for the top job. Regional parties will determine the shape of the next coalition government, but their leaders’ ambition is to catapult one of their kind to 7, Race Course Road.

A few conclusions can already be drawn after election dates have been announced. Mr Modi is the man to beat, with the Congress running a lame second. Regional leaders, forming alliances that are often brittle — witness the short-lived agreement by J. Jayalalithaa with the two Communist parties in Tamil Nadu — and pie in the sky ventures are now a familiar pattern. But regional satraps have the formidable task of living down the distressing legacy of the 1990s, with many of them participating in a charade of leading governments at the mercy of the Congress or once of the BJP.

Inevitably, ideologies come tumbling down, given the imperative of winning elections. Ram Vilas Paswan finding virtue in Mr Modi after having left the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government after the Muslim pogrom in Gujarat of 2002 is a striking, but by no means unique, example. And dynasty politics, primarily associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family, has spread its tentacles far and wide.

Indeed, some of Akhilesh Yadav’s troubles in running Uttar Pradesh arise out of his father Mulayam Singh’s oversight and his uncles and other relations, duly installed in office, pursuing their own agendas. Bihar politicians have set new benchmarks. After aligning with the BJP, Mr Paswan promptly nominated his family to the quota seats he had been given. And the inimitable Lalu Prasad Yadav precipitated a mini-crisis in his party by nominating his daughter, apart from his wife, in the list of candidates. The virus of giving one’s progeny political office has seeped into the BJP as well, although not at the seniormost levels.
In a sense, it is the triumph of Indian democracy, with all its warts, that so many regional leaders should harbour ambitions of becoming Prime Minister and that three of them should be women. Ms Jayalalithaa has already broadcast her ambition and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party is no shrinking lily either.

Mamata Banerjee has chosen a more subtle tack by latching on to Anna Hazare, the original anti-corruption crusader abandoned by his star pupil Arvind Kejriwal, in the hope that some of his lustre will rub off on her and her national ambition.

Which brings us to the new kid on the block, Mr Kejriwal. Founding his Aam Aadmi Party and performing surprisingly well in the Delhi Assembly election to the near decimation of the Congress, he became chief minister on the crutches of the Congress while castigating his benefactor. During his short stint in office, his gaze was on national office even as he breezed through populous measures and elevated the fight against corruption to a primary goal before seemingly becoming a martyr to the cause.

Mr Kejriwal has brought a breath of fresh air to Indian politics although some of his methods are not above reproach. His relevance to the general election is not in the handful of seats his party could win but in his capacity to cut into the votes of the frontrunner, the BJP. Indeed, he, rather than the Congress, has proved to be a real competitor to Mr Modi’s slick public relations machinery. He proved his flair for attracting attention and publicity by going into Mr Modi’s den in Gujarat to try to puncture the theme of the state’s development model.

Mr Modi is inevitably riding on the theme of decisive leadership, given the dual nature of the United Progressive Alliance’ power structure and the perception of drift that has been a feature of the government’s functioning in more recent times. At the same time, Mr Modi is seeking to soften his Hindutva image not only by wearing different headgear in diverse parts of the country — a standard political act — but in seeking to round his image. It is not lost upon him or the BJP that governing the country, rather than one state, requires an inclusive leadership.

The BJP has been seeking to change the national narrative from the Nehruvian model to a more nationalistic majoritarian theme by taking the old Congress strongman, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, as its talisman. The party’s mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, sets the ideological agenda, but if the BJP were to return to power in New Delhi after a decade’s gap, Mr Modi would discover that his problems would begin were he to follow a narrow agenda.

The results of the election will throw up surprises. The crucial factor that will determine the shape of the next government will be whether the National Democratic Alliance will achieve a target of between 200 and 220 seats in the Lower House to attract the regional parties it will need to enable Mr Modi to form a government. If it does, there will be many following Mr Paswan’s example in discovering hitherto unsuspected virtue in Mr Modi.

If the results tally with the prevailing wisdom of the polls, India would enter a new era in its political history in being ruled by a dispensation that prides itself on a Hindutva agenda without the softening touch of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The problem is that the decisive leadership many in the country are pining for would collide with the idea of India that has kept the country together for over six decades, despite myriad crises.

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