One of the major outcomes of the recent meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) national executive is the apparent solidification of support for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Although he continues to be an extremely divisive figure beyond the party faithful – and even the BJP’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has its doubts about his reliability as a vessel for its ideology – Mr Modi’s chances of emerging as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections have been substantially enhanced. The BJP’s logic has a certain coherence to it. Since the eclipse of Lal Krishna Advani following the 2009 general elections defeat, it has appeared rudderless. Its ambitious Delhi leaders have squandered the advantages provided by the United Progressive Alliance government’s loss of credibility, through infighting and populism. Division at the Centre was mirrored by chaos at the state level, with factional clashes in Rajasthan and corruption investigations in Karnataka. Of its state-level leaders, only Mr Modi appears to have national recognition — as well as that indefinable charisma that can provide extra energy to party workers.
If the BJP decides to go with Mr Modi, however, it takes on liabilities as well as strengths. Obviously, many prospective allies will not be pleased with his aggressive Hindutva image and his unwillingness to distance himself from the governance failures that marked the 2002 riots. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar and another prospective prime ministerial aspirant from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has never kept his distaste for Mr Modi a secret; Mr Modi returned the compliment on Monday, declaring that the leaders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – presumably including Mr Kumar – were mired in caste-based politics. Even if Mr Modi reinvigorates the BJP, he might well truncate the NDA.
Yet the very events that appeared to demonstrate Mr Modi’s ascendance have also solidified his image as a man unwilling to compromise in the slightest, and who accepts no restraints. His apparent insistence that Sanjay Joshi, a BJP and RSS functionary of whom he strongly disapproves, be removed from the party before he would attend the national executive is a sign that he will tolerate no dissent. Indeed, his careful cultivation of his own image suggests that he is comfortable with the creation of a cult of personality out of what has always sold itself as a cadre-based party. The last BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, built up a reputation as a conciliator and a man who valued consensus and compromise. He preserved institutional strength and independence, and appeared willing to subject himself to the constraints of constitutionality and coalitions. Thus, despite his personal popularity, the internal structure of his party survived his dominance. His sometimes difficult yet enduring working partnership with Mr Advani also showed his ability to lead without blotting out other voices. Mr Modi makes no such guarantees; throughout his career, he has been satisfied with nothing less than the complete annihilation of his rivals. The Congress’ decay since the Indira Gandhi era is a warning of the danger of such thinking. Allowing Mr Modi free play with the BJP will be bad for it, and by extension for India.