Friday, August 1, 2008

IS MODI BJP'S ANSWER TO THE MANMOHAN MAYAWATI CHALLENGE?

The BJP has been surprisingly losing its plot for the last few months. It is in power in more states than any other party and has been successfully routing the Congress in state after state. With LK Advani having been formally appointed its Prime Ministerial candidate, one would have thought that a confident BJP would be fully alive to its responsibility as it readies to form the next government at the Centre after the forthcoming elections.

I have already written in detail earlier about how Mr LK Advani messed up the opportunity presented by the Indo-US Nuclear Deal to show his statesmanship. Not only did he lose that chance to enhance his stature(and perhaps get more votes too), he also got involved in shady deals to topple the government, very personal attacks on the PM, and the plan to show to the world, live, the depths to which our Parliament has sunk. In the aftermath of the serial blasts in Ahmedabad, he was back to the only song on his track – POTA – to discredit the central government, though the attacks were in a state ruled by his own party.

Mr Advani has not yet displayed the ability to see and react to developments around him as a visionary PM of the largest democracy should. This inability – many will disagree – gets heightened because the present PM, in the face of great constraints, has all along displayed remarkable civility and dignity behoving the high office that he occupies. Due to this demonstrated lack of well balanced leadership and the shaky ethics that he has embraced, Advani finds himself rudely pushed aside from the front runner’s position in the race for the Prime Minister’s chair.

From nowhere, Mayawati has erupted with unexpected strength as possibly the strongest candidate with almost the entire opposition, including the Left, rallying behind her. This ‘daughter of a dalit’ may well have become the PM in July itself had the UPA lost the Trust Vote. That did not happen, but Advani’s decision to needlessly crank up and unwittingly help polarise the political atmosphere into three distinct groups has Mayawati smelling unexpected victory after the elections. And she is not the one who lets an opportunity go. On the contrary, she creates one where no one else sees it. She has always surprised everyone by her audacious moves and left them licking their wounds. There is nothing to suggest that she is going to let this ‘Advani-sent’ opportunity slip out of her hands this time.

Manmohan Singh, till recently the lonely fall guy of the Congress with barely a voice, can also thank Advani for getting him into an avoidable fight which has made him ‘king'. From the weak and ineffective PM that the commies had repeatedly made him appear, he has overnight become the decisive and firm PM who is willing to take the big risks to do something he really believes in, an admirable quality rarely seen in this era of coalition politics. More than that, Advani’s blunders have enabled Manmohan to kill two birds in one stroke: the commies and Advani himself. The gentle guy who got the job thanks to Sonia Gandhi suddenly appears to be the best and most credible candidate that the UPA can project as the next PM. There never was a real alternative available; Advani has just made him look like a very good choice, even better than himself.

Ever since Narendra Modi overcame perhaps the most relentless and vicious personal campaign ever launched against a political leader, to achieve an unprecedented victory in elections to the Gujarat Assembly last year, there has been talk that he has it in him to become the Prime Minister of India. Of course his political opponents, sections of the media and certain other organizations will not let the ghost of 2002 riots go away from him.

The fact the he has been indisputably India's best Chief Minister who has put his state on a blazing path of progress, that his personal integrity is exceptonal and that he has rare leadership qualities, is sought to be drowned by them in the fiery pool of 2002. That strategy, disconnected from real Indians, is likely to prove counterproductive and bring Modi and the BJP rich dividends across the country, quite like it has in Gujarat.

The 16 bombs that blasted in Ahmedabad and the 21 that did not in Surat were possibly meant not just to terrorise ordinary citizens. They may also have been deployed as almost the perfect tools to get Modi agitated and either encourage something akin to 2002, or make communally incendiary statements which could be used to keep discrediting him. In the event, Modi surprised all by reacting and speaking very responsibly, appealing to the people of Gujarat to remain calm and maintain peace and the pace of economic growth that they have achieved. Like a national leader, he spoke about the blasts as being part of the proxy war that has been unleashed on India, a war that has to be fought and won by the nation. He also showed rarely seen political bipartisanship and dignity during the visits of the PM and Sonia Gandhi to Gujarat, and avoided falling into the trap of the mindless blame games which achieve little more than vitiating the political atmosphere.

Contrast this to the insane allegation made by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj that the blasts were a Congress party conspiracy. Even Advani did not cover himself in glory by giving the blasts the usual petty political hue that makes any serious effort to tackle this problem almost impossible. In fact, among BJP leaders, it was only Modi who emerged from the blasts with his image enhanced.

The events of the last few months seem to have done the impossible for the BJP. From a position of near certain victory, bolstered hugely by galloping inflation, the party finds itself in a very difficult situation. It has created two formidable opponents: a much taller Manmohan Singh and an almost unstoppable Mayawati. In hindsight, it is unbelievable that a party with so many strategists would shoot itself in not one but both its feet. Greed for power and focus on the petty side of politics often makes otherwise sensible people do many strange things which they would never normally even think of doing.

Without Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani seems less than half. Without the glow of Vajpayee’s wisdom to light him up, Advani looks a lot smaller and paler than he ever did. He is also well past his prime and is no longer capable of firing the imagination of his own party men, forget the voters. Under his sole leadership, the BJP has started floundering even in a position of strength. The way things are going, chances are that the party may fare even worse than it did in the last elections. If that happens, it may well face the most unpalatable prospect of supporting a Mayawati led government. If it refuses to do so, the damage to it will be demoralising; if it does, the damage to Advani will be devastating.

Contrary to what Sushma Swaraj believes, the BJP may well stand to benefit from the series of terror attacks that have been taking place all over the country over the last few years. The Parliament may have been attacked when the party was in power. There may have been other terror attacks too during that period, but the widespread perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the BJP was serious about tackling terror while the Congress is not. However, under the ageing Advani’s leadership, the BJP is not likely to benefit from the deteriorating security situation, something it easily should be able to do without getting involved in abusive personal and political attacks.

Narendra Modi is already looked upon by many as the next leader of the BJP, even the country, after Advani. There is another top-notch performer, BC Khanduri, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, who fits the bill equally well. But this retired General is a late entrant into politics and does not have an RSS background. Advani is the declared leader of the BJP for the next elections. As things stand now, Modi will most likely succeed him to fight the elections scheduled for 2014.

The sudden emergence of Mayawati and the ‘new and improved’ Manmohan Singh the King, has made the BJP’s task very difficult indeed. Advani has so far not shown the leadership qualities that should automatically make him the weapon of choice to take on and trounce these two very formidable opponents. If the situation keeps drifting in the manner it has been for the last few months, the party will be nowhere near power after the next elections; it could, in fact, shrink embarrassingly.

Should the BJP stick to its Plan A and continue with Advani as its leader and projected PM? Or is time for Advani to gracefully step aside and let the party project its strongest bet, the leader who has dramatically demonstrated his ability to fight and win against all the odds and some more, as its Prime Ministerial candidate? If the Nehru-Gandhi family can swallow its pride and project Manmohan again, why can Advani not step aside in favour of someone else who can better combat the vastly changed situation?

Is Narendra Modi the right and only answer that the BJP has to thwart the unexpected challenge posed by Mayawati and Manmohan? Does he have it in him to lead the nation? Has his time already come? To many the answers are all in the affirmative. To others, even the thought of Modi becoming PM is unacceptable.

No matter what your take on Modi is, one thing is certain. If he jumps into the fray as the leader of the BJP, the effect will be electrifying. The BJP will be rejuvenated and keyed up to take others on. Its opponents will also know that the fight on their hands is going to be really tough. And, the election results may surprise a lot of us.

You may also like to read this post of April 29, 2009: Desperately seeking Modi: Too Late?