On Thursday, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) leader in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, described the face-off between the party’s Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, and its ally from the Janata Dal (United), Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, as “irrelevant” and “unfortunate”. Unfortunate it may be for the BJP, but hardly irrelevant. The national executive meeting of the BJP in Mumbai recently was widely seen as endorsing Mr Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions. Mr Kumar has, in the past, made his discomfort with Mr Modi publicly known, preventing him from campaigning in Bihar as far as possible. He will have been emboldened by the fact that the state’s Muslims appear to have rewarded his distancing by swelling the mandate that returned him to power. Mr Modi, meanwhile, has lashed out at “leaders from UP and Bihar” who are “mired in caste-based politics”. Mr Kumar responded where it hurt, by saying that any prime ministerial candidate from the National Democratic Alliance would have to have a secular image — a quality that, very definitely, cannot be associated with Mr Modi.
Mr Kumar’s bluntness has thrown into stark relief the dilemma that the BJP faces with reference to Mr Modi. On the one hand, the Gujarat chief minister’s hardline Hindutva clearly energises the party’s base. On the other hand, forming an alliance that will get the requisite numbers is harder. While Mr Modi might be able to count on an ally or two – his Tamil Nadu counterpart, J Jayalalithaa, is noticeably warm towards him, for example – the BJP’s other natural allies are far from as easy to win over. Of course, the BJP will hope that its promotion of Mr Modi’s reputation as an efficient administrator who has near single-handedly brought growth to Gujarat can offset that. But, as time goes by, more and more holes will be poked in that narrative, with numbers being produced that indicate that it is, at best, simplistic, and at worst quite wrong. For example, while Gujarat grew at marginally better than the national average of 8.3 per cent between 2004 and 2012, its growth rate for the period – 10.1 per cent – lags other comparable states. Maharashtra grew at 10.8 per cent and Tamil Nadu at 10.3 per cent. Of course, it is significantly behind Mr Kumar’s Bihar, which grew at 11.4 per cent during this period.
Indeed, when the data are looked at more closely, Mr Modi’s much-vaunted contribution vanishes like smoke. If Mr Modi has made a difference, it needs to be shown that he increased Gujarat’s growth rate more than other chief ministers did for their states. Yet analysis available online at indiaspend.com shows that the 2004-12 period featured a growth rate that was 3.6 per cent higher than the rate for 1994-2002. Mr Kumar, by comparison, delivered an increase of 6.5 per cent; the Congress, in Maharashtra, delivered a 5.8 per cent increase and Tamil Nadu improved growth by 4.7 per cent. Therefore, there is little help for the BJP in presenting Mr Modi as a growth messiah. Mr Kumar’s case that development and pro-growth policy can be delivered by politicians who are not socially divisive is considerably strengthened by the data.