By Swapan Dasgupta
It is not merely the weather—the arrival of the brief autumn—that has changed in Lutyens’ Delhi: there has also been a discernible shift in the political environment over the past three weeks. The most important facet of this change has been the delayed recognition of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to be a force multiplier.
Following the public meetings in Rewari and Rohini (Delhi), the chattering classes discourse on Modi has shifted quite dramatically. The belief that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was a regional upstart who would fail to make a mark in national politics—the Gujarat-isn’t-India theory—has abruptly given way to a grudging recognition that Modi is a ‘phenomenon’, probably symptomatic of a new urban India that makes up with energy what it lacks in refinement. The size and sheer exuberance of the crowds at his rallies has left people wondering why they didn’t detect the trend earlier.
Additionally, the re-engagement of Telugu Desam Party chief N.Chandrababu Naidu and the supportive utterances of YSR Congress chief Jagan Mohan Reddy have blunted the still outstanding question: Modi is popular but will such a ‘polarising’ figure be able to secure allies and secure the allies to cross the 272 mark? Admittedly, the question will remain unanswered till counting day but the prophecies and back of the envelope calculations are no longer bound in negative certitudes. Earlier mainstream political punditry deemed that Modi would at best be a figure of fringe inspiration—another Barry Goldwater, for those enamoured of US parallels—and that in the age of coalitions he would lose all the battles but have the best songs. After Naidu’s apparent willingness to sup with him and Reddy’s cryptic observation that NaMo is a good administrator who must now build a grand secular platform, the sceptics have had to gulp a little.
What appears to be emerging is a two-fold pattern. At one level there is recognition and anecdotal evidence that Modi’s personal popularity is unrivalled and reaching cult status. Secondly, the belief that personal popularity would be offset by the BJP’s geographical reach of some 300 Lok Sabha seats has been supplemented by the realisation that regional parties in non-BJP areas see potential benefits in climbing on to the NaMo bandwagon. In other words, there is awareness small parties with localised influence have begun to feel that an association with Modi would give them a booster dose and facilitate the harvesting of incremental votes. Recall that in 1998 and 1999, it was the independent appeal of Atal Behari Vajpayee that contributed to the BJP—a political pariah from 1992 to 1996—shedding its isolation and emerging as the nucleus of a grand alliance that incorporated some 20 parties.
For Modi, the recognition by the Establishment (including the Prime Minister) that he is a formidable challenge to the Congress’ hold over the Centre is a significant achievement. But this advance in turn has thrown up new and interesting challenges that have to be met before the real campaign gets underway. A winning campaign necessitates that Modi complements his inspirational rallies with credible local faces of change. This is not going to be easy: the BJP has not experienced a process of self-renewal since the Ayodhya agitation catapulted the recruits gained from the JP movement into the second-rung of the leadership—and for which L.K. Advani deserves special credit.
Sunday Times of India, October 6, 2013