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After Modi, who? If not PM, What?
- The BJP feels the May 16 outcome is just a formality but some are indeed asking an unlikely question in Gujarat

The shrill, vociferous and incessant slogan “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” — heard every other minute on radio and staring down from every billboard — overwhelmed the political discourse in his home state more than any other. But with elections now over in Gujarat, the conversation is slowly shifting to what May 16 holds in store and its implications for the state and its “supreme leader.”

BJP leaders and workers in the state are absolutely convinced that nothing can stop Narendra Modi from becoming Prime Minister now. “The results are just a formality. Only the date and time of the swearing-in remains in suspense,” said a bunch of mid-level party leaders manning their own version of the “war room” at the BJP’s gleaming new state headquarters called Kamal in a leafy enclave near Gandhinagar.

But many an ordinary Gujarati, even while professing total support for Modi, are not as cocksure. Their views are summed up in a line I hear often while criss-crossing the state — “abhi nahin, to kabhi nahin” (if not now, then never). And off-the-record conversations with BJP leaders bring up two other scenarios at odds with one another. One concerns the state and is all about “After Modi, Who?” The other is about the man himself — If not Prime Minister, What?

The Modi machine has mesmerised large parts of Gujarat for over a decade now but this time the decibel level, in the words of well-known Ahmedabad-based sociologist Ghanshyam Shah, “has reached unimaginable limits”.

As a result, most BJP supporters cannot wait to see Modi “unfurling the Tricolour at Red Fort on August 15 this year”. But in the same breath, they add this is his first and last chance to be Prime Minister. Isn’t that foreclosing his future options? After all, Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried and failed to be Prime Minister many times, and his first government fell ignominiously after 13 days, before he finally lasted a full term.

A BJP insider who did not want to be named said there was no comparison between Vajpayee and Modi. Besides, after all this hype, after all the expectations that had been whipped up among BJP supporters across the country, failure was “not an option” for Modi. “The knives will be out in the BJP if he doesn’t get us at least 200 seats,” he added, hinting that there would be no “second chance” for Modi.

Given this level of confidence in a Modi victory, the talk in BJP circles is now about who will succeed him as chief minister and the prospects of a state and a party without him at the helm.

The man on the street thinks it will be Anandiben Patel because she has long been considered Modi’s closest confidante. But she and Modi’s man for all seasons Amit Shah are bitter rivals. “If the BJP does really well in Uttar Pradesh, Modi will be beholden to Amit Shah even more. And even if Amit Shah cannot be made chief minister immediately (because of the pending cases against him), he certainly won’t let Anandiben get the job,” a BJP activist said.

The other names doing the rounds are that of finance minister Nitin Patel and industries minister Saurabh Patel.

A BJP leader, who has closely worked with Modi, said if he became Prime Minister, he was not going to be concerned with Gujarat anymore. “He used Gujarat to consolidate his position but has been eyeing the national stage for a long time now. If he moves to Delhi, the BJP state unit might once again be riven by infighting and caste politics as it was before Narendrabhai established total supremacy” the insider said.

But what if the BJP and the NDA fall short of the magic figure and get no new allies to form the government? Will Modi continue as Gujarat chief minister — which he refused to give up despite being officially named the prime ministerial candidate several months ago? Or will he prefer to be leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha? Or bide his time as an MP till the next elections? One young BJP office-bearer near Rajkot, speaking strictly off-the-record, said he didn’t think Modi would be returning to Gujarat after making such an audacious bid at the nation’s top job. But political analysts in Gujarat who have studied the Modi phenomenon cannot imagine him being an Opposition MP. “He is too used to power now; he cannot be in the Opposition,” one said.

While many BJP insiders refuse to even entertain such “hypothetical” questions, convinced as they are of a “spectacular Namo victory,” one of them confessed: “I simply don’t know what he will do if he doesn’t win. I don’t think anyone does. If he has a Plan B, he hasn’t consulted anyone about it.” And then added sotto voce: “Losers usually have no place anywhere. I would rather not speculate.”