Will Narendra Modi become the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP)? While there is intense competition within the party and objection to his name from a crucial ally, Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United), he is bound to become the default choice for the BJP if he wins the assembly elections in December and gets a third full term for the party. Like his previous electoral battles, there are factors in his favour and there are factors against him, but one can safely expect him to scrape through if not sail through.
Modi himself is not taking any chances. He has already completed one round of campaigning. His month-long Swami Vivekanand Yuva Vikas Yatra ended on October 11 with a large rally (estimated crowd strength: 1,75,000) in the temple town of Pavagarh. Over a month, he travelled 3,500 km (in a ‘rath’ previously used by party veteran LK Advani in his campaigns), and addressed 32 major rallies.
The only other major party in the fray, the Congress, on the other hand, is yet to get off the ground: except for one rally Sonia Gandhi addressed in Rajkot, no major national-level leader from the party has touched base in the state. As for Rahul Gandhi, who bravely went out and bloodied his nose in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, there is no word if he would campaign in this state. When Modi ‘challenged’ the young MP to campaign in Gujarat, Congress spokespersons responded with a non-sequitur saying that a national leader should not be equated with a regional leader.
Such comments only expose the Congress’s despondency in a state where it has sat in opposition since 1995. Political observers in Gujarat note that in the BJP gained Gandhinagar even at the cost of Delhi in 2007, now the Congress is trying to retain Delhi by losing Gandhinagar. It may sound counter-intuitive but a stronger Modi in 2014 may as well be to the Congress’s advantage, given his polarising image.
Given the new low in the popularity of the grand old party thanks to scam-a-day governance and the latest expose on Robert Vadra, the Congress is in no position either to mount an attack on Modi. In some other scenario, Modi might have faced a lot of uncomfortable questions. There is a piece of land his government has given to the same DLF at heavy discount (and is yet to cancel it, the process is on since 2009). The latest CAG report on the state talks of financial irregularities worth Rs 16,000 crore. Two of his ministers are facing serious corruption charges. Two more ministers, thankfully no longer in the ministry, have been charge-sheeted and one found guilty too. And, above all, activists have questioned his corporate-oriented decisions at the cost of people.
Modi, too, does not want to discuss the affairs of the state in his campaign. When the Manmohan Singh government has made itself such an easy target, why should Modi bother to explain what he meant to say in his insensitive comments on malnutrition? During the month-long yatra, he relentlessly targeted Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, in particular the latter for her alleged travel bills.
Earlier this month, he first alleged that according to an RTI reply, Rs 1,880 crore of public money was spent on Sonia’s foreign trips. When the RTI applicant from Haryana clarified that he was yet to receive any reply, Modi cited the figure once again and challenged the central government to clarify, which it did, unequivocally, saying not a penny from public funds was spent on Sonia’s treatment or travel, within India or abroad. The matter should have ended there, but Modi repeated the figure at another rally, this time quoting a report of the PTI, forcing the news agency to issue a clarification saying it had not released any such news story.
That is typical of Modi. As the D-day comes closer, expect him to go for the jugular. The only spoiler for him can come from his own former colleague, Keshubhai Patel, the ex-chief minister, who has finally quit the BJP to launch his own outfit called Parivartan party. Analysts are cagey about forecasting its impact: if it does garner substantial chunk of votes, it can hurt not only the BJP but also the Congress, nullifying the effect. But if Keshubhai is able to consolidate the influential Patel community behind him and win in his base of Saurashtra, it would be time for calculators.