Opinion polls in India rarely tend to be definite: They are at best indicative of political trends. Even so, the latest round of the bi-annual Mood of the Nation poll sponsored by India Today must bring a measure of joy to the BJP and particularly those in the organisation who feel that the future belongs to a dispensation led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The findings are no doubt much more encouraging to the BJP than to the Congress. In the event of a snap general election, the BJP is expected to win some 140 Lok Sabha seats, which is significantly more than the 110 seats the poll gives to the Congress. In the individual popularity stakes, it would seem that Modi has nearly doubled his claim to be considered as a future Prime Minister. Whereas he was the prime ministerial choice of only 12 per cent six months ago, his current acceptability is 24 per cent. More important, Modi is well ahead of Rahul Gandhi who is the choice of 17 per cent, a fall of four per cent from mid-2011.
However, before the BJP goes gaga celebrating its good showing in an opinion poll, it would be instructive to read the fine print which paints a potentially disturbing picture for the future stability of the country. The poll shows that the NDA (as it is presently constituted) would be only a whisker ahead of the UPA. Together, the two main alliances would account for two-thirds of the Lok Sabha seats. In other words, the Lok Sabha would be divided into three near-equal parts: The NDA, the UPA and members of the Left and regional parties who will hold the balance of power.
The next Government, in short, will be formed by the formation that is least unacceptable to the regional players. It will be the Naveen Patnaiks, the Jayalalithaas and the Chandrababu Naidus who will determine not only the composition of the Government but also the Prime Minister.
For the moment, that is not entirely good news for Modi. His candidature is likely to invite opposition from a section of the NDA and those outside the alliance that regard him as a polarising agent. This may exclude Jayalalithaa and, at a pinch, Patnaik, but will definitely include Nitish Kumar and Naidu.
There is another imponderable. The poll indicates that the BJP can get to 140 seats if it fights as a part of the NDA and without any clarity over its leadership. Will this tally improve or shrink if Modi is the candidate?
Conventional wisdom deems that elevating Modi to a prime ministerial candidate is fraught with risks. Modi is without doubt the most popular BJP leader in the country. His mere presence energises the committed and there is little doubt that he will be able to generate euphoria around himself. In a Modi-Rahul battle, the Gujarat Chief Minister will gain from the infectious enthusiasm of his youthful followers all over the country.
Yet, there is big question mark. Just as Modi will certainly galvanise any BJP campaign and attract an incremental vote from people who are looking forward to purposeful, no-nonsense governance, he will also help consolidate that section which sees Modi as an ogre and a personification of evil. The fact that this includes the dominant section of the media — miffed because Modi has no time for it — and the liberal intelligentsia will ensure that the attack on Modi will be shrill, alarmist and pitiless. Intellectual luminaries will be lined up to tell the country that a Modi administration will be a replica of Hitler’s Germany, with Muslims reduced to the status of non-citizens.
The purpose behind this shrill campaign will be to turn a general election into a referendum on Modi and divert attention from the pathetic quality of governance under the UPA. The Congress believes that with Modi as the BJP’s face, the entire non-BJP vote will rally behind it. Indeed, it has been suggested that the situation would resemble Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was the darling of his party faithful but Johnson was more acceptable to the electorate.
It is impossible to know whether or not history will repeat itself but what is clear is that Project Modi has a greater chance of success if the enthusiasm for the undeniable leadership qualities of the man can be extended into a platform that brings a multitude of non-Congress parties under one roof. I don’t think any appeal based on highlighting Modi’s Hindu credentials can do the trick. Modi is already too much of a Hindu icon for this point to be emphasised and re-emphasised, especially by people who may end up making minorities and moderate Hindus jittery.
For the BJP, the future lies in fine-tuning and internalising the plank of federalism. Rolling back the frontiers of centralisation is the only plank that will unite the maximum number of regional parties. However, it would appear that many BJP leaders have not cottoned on to its potential appeal. To be fair, Modi has long acknowledged its potential. Now he needs to make many more strategic interventions on the same lines and complement his Sadbhavana Mission with a more tangible message for the rest of India.
Fielding Modi as the prime ministerial candidate constitutes an audacious step. The BJP has to calculate whether it wants the plodding approach or is willing to take risks.