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Verdict: Be decisive in power

New Delhi, Dec. 20: The BJP stormed back to power for the fifth time in Gujarat today and its leader Narendra Modi joined the eclectic club of present-day chief ministers — Tarun Gogoi, Naveen Patnaik, Sheila Dikshit and Manik Sarkar among them — to win three Assembly elections in a row.

But given his much bigger national profile and the larger-than-life image he has acquired over the last decade, Modi’s hat-trick immediately set off a clamour from the BJP rank and file that he be declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election — a call that is likely to weigh heavily on the party’s central leadership which has to decide on a new party president early next year.

The Congress, which hasn’t won a popular election in Gujarat since 1990 and failed to stall the Modi juggernaut with its low-key, leader-less campaign yet again, sought to take heart from the fact that Modi got the same tally as in 2007 and failed to win an even bigger mandate that had been predicted by pre-poll and exit poll surveys.

A more substantive and heart-warming consolation came from the frozen climes of Himachal Pradesh where the Congress managed to wrest power from the BJP. Fought under the leadership of war-horse Virbhadra Singh, the Himachal results, too, proved the pollsters wrong. Far from being a “neck-and-neck battle” which was expected to throw up a hung Assembly, the Congress scored a clear victory with 36 seats in the 68-member Assembly.

Making much of the victory in tiny Himachal Pradesh and the continuation of “status quo” in Gujarat may seem like clutching at straws. But the two results are certain to resonate more loudly in the corridors of South and North Block which house the offices of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister P. Chidambaram than at the Congress headquarters at 24, Akbar Road.

This is so because after years of dithering, the Manmohan Singh-Chidambaram combine took a series of tough economic decisions such as hiking the price of diesel, putting a cap on subsidised LPG cylinders and pushing for FDI in multi-brand retail in late September.

Many in the Congress feared that these measures, coming at a time when UPA-II faced a severe credibility crisis on account of mega-corruption scandals, would make the party even more unpopular and cost it heavily at the hustings.

The Gujarat and Himachal elections, thus, were a mini-referendum as it were on the government’s decisions. That the Congress could still win in Himachal Pradesh, where the LPG issue in particular was a major poll plank of the ruling BJP, and maintain its tally in Gujarat is certain to bolster the morale of the government and may impel it to administer more such “bitter but necessary medicine”.

The Himachal result has also shown that despite the high-voltage campaign carried out by anti-corruption crusaders such as Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare, a strong leader combined with a robust grassroots campaign can still pay dividends.

The Congress’s five-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh was dogged by corruption charges but his indefatigable campaign across the Himalayan state helped harness local anti-incumbency against the Prem Dhumal-led BJP dispensation — and the state remained true to form by not re-electing an incumbent government.

This is exactly what was missing from the Congress campaign in Gujarat where the party refused to project any chief ministerial candidate and opted for a low-key approach aimed at “containing” and “chipping away” the BJP’s formidable base rather than frontally taking on Modi.

To be sure, taking on Modi and his “Moditva” — a unique combination of subliminal Hindutva, appeal to Gujarati “asmita” (pride) and “vikas” (development) — is not as easy as defeating a Dhumal, but the Congress did not put up even a modicum of a spirited campaign, relying more on some karmic law of anti-incumbency to play itself out in the state.

In contrast, Modi ran a relentless and massive campaign machine and traversed Gujarat many times over. Modi, in fact, was in campaign mode long before the elections were officially announced. His state-wide Sadbhavna Missions, Vivekananda Yatras, Vibrant Gujarat summits et al managed to consolidate not just his committed urban middle class base but also mesmerise sections of the Gujarati populace who were not traditional supporters of the BJP or the Sangh parivar.

Given this blitzkrieg and his claims of transforming Gujarat, his failure to secure a two-thirds majority is certain to rankle his fans and give ammunition to his detractors within the BJP who are wary of Modi’s ascendancy to the national stage.

In fact, the victory in Gujarat has far greater implications for the BJP now than the defeat has for the Congress. With less than 18 months to go for the general election, the BJP leadership does not have much time to decide on what to do with the Modi phenomenon — whether to formally make him the “first among equals” and the party’s PM candidate or keep it off till after the elections. Given Modi’s victory and his massive appeal not just among the BJP’s rank and file but also in many pockets of urban India outside Gujarat, his ascent to Delhi may prove unstoppable, many BJP insiders insist.

But BJP leaders also know that Modi continues to be a deeply polarising figure — the very anti-thesis of Atal Bihari Vajpayee — and is guaranteed to push away allies rather than draw them in, at least as far as pre-poll alliances go.

The decision on Modi’s future beyond Gandhinagar, therefore, is tied up with the trajectory the BJP will follow — whether to push ahead on its own and hope that Modi will bring in more seats with his “strong leader, rapid development” message; or go to the polls as part of the NDA (including the JD-U) and not declare a leader till after the 2014 results.

Since the BJP has not found a Vajpayee-like figure so far, today’s victory is likely to propel Moditva well beyond the boundaries of Gujarat.


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