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Narendra Modi as India's next PM: top five Yes and No factors

Modi is seen as the leader who could return the BJP to power. Is he the man for India?

Shantanu Bhattacharji  |  New Delhi 

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

Despite a controversial past – Narendra Modi, 64, is accused by detractors of not doing enough to stop the 2002 riots that saw as many as 2,000 killed, most of them Muslims – his stature has grown steadily since then and he has built an image for turning Gujarat into one of India's best-governed and most affluent states. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost the last two general elections – 2004 and 2009 – and has yet to convert its fortunes, but the Hindutva poster boy is increasingly seen as the leader who could finally return the saffron party to power.

Promoted in 1995 to become the BJP’s secretary, he helped orchestrate the party’s rise to power. After taking over the chief ministership in the wake of a disastrous earthquake, in 2001, he has been re-elected thrice, becoming Gujarat’s longest-serving leader. In June this year, the BJP appointed him chairman of its campaign committee ahead of general elections due in 2014, signalling that Modi is its presumptive prime ministerial candidate.

Taking a leaf out of US President Barack Obama’s election slogan – “Yes we can, Yes we will” – Modi launched the BJP’s poll campaign, urging non-Congress Opposition to joins hands to rid the country of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) “misrule”.

For the BJP to get anything near to the 180 (out of 545) seats it needs in 2014 to be sure of leading a coalition government, Modi must appeal beyond his base to an emerging urban middle class worried about jobs, development and corruption.

But, then, there is an ugly side of the story, too. Modi gave a clarion call to rid the nation of the Congress party’s presence. In May, the alleged corruption and betting scandal attached to Indian Premier League (IPL) rocked the nation. As a Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) governing board member Modi failed to stand out against the corruption. The moot question is: how will he stamp out corruption across the nation?

On Solid Ground
. Modi is today seen as a clean, efficient and no-nonsense administrator, an image that has been cultivated by sending messages to the right kind of audience. Business tycoons see him as a political enforcer who can deliver business opportunity without expensive social unrest. His model is one of ‘decentralisation of planning and empowering people’.

. Modi has built a reputation as an incorruptible and efficient technocrat who has electrified Gujarat's 18,000 villages - the state is the only one in India with a near 24/7 power supply - and slashed red tape to attract companies like Ford, Maruti Suzuki and Tata Motors.

. During Modi's 10 years as Chief Minister, Gujarat has grown an average of 10% a year. The state ranked fifth out of 15 big states in 2010-2011 in terms of per capita income. The CM boasts it is the "engine of India's economic growth."

. Modi has nonetheless one achievement which should persuade the voters to treat him with a measure of respect. He is the only chief minister in the country who has not allowed the mischief-making Naxalites to create a niche for themselves within his state, and this despite Gujarat having a substantially large tribal population.

. Gujarat’s success, even Modi's detractors acknowledge, is a result of good planning -- exactly what so much of India lacks. The BJP has no real choice but to bite the Modi bullet. The saffron party’s natural supporters are enthused by Modi in the same way as they were by the Ayodhya issue in 1991 and by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's leadership in 1998 and 1999.


On a Sticky Wicket


. The stigma that clung to him in the aftermath of the riots has not faded. Despite his achievements as an administrator, he is still viewed through the prism of the 2002 riots. Though he came close to losing his job over his role in the riots, he expressed no regrets and admitted to no misjudgements. He remains a deeply divisive figure. However, all investigations have cleared him of any personal responsibility but one of his former ministers, Maya Kodnani, was given 28 years in jail last year for her part in the killing of 97 people in Naroda Patiya.

. Opinion polls predict a close election with regional parties likely to be king-makers. Even if the BJP secures the most votes it could struggle to find partners to form a viable coalition government, especially with Modi at its head.

. Political observers are of the view that Modi could be rejected by Muslims and moderate Hindus. Modi’s campaigning outside Gujarat in 2009 brought out crowds but gathered few votes.

. Remember what Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had said: if you want to do in the country, you cannot stay away from skullcap and tilak. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan knows this.

In a multi-ethnic/religious country like India, no leader can perhaps command the support of all communities but he must not attract the implacable hostility of India’s largest minority. For instance, former Prime Minister Vajpayee may not have enjoyed widespread support among Muslims but was not treated as an enemy either.

. It will be tough going for him though in large parts of the country, particularly in the east and the south, where members of the main minority community constitute a sizeable part of the electorate. In the southern States, where the BJP has virtually no presence, the Congress’s loss cannot be the BJP’s gain. The Congress’s loss can be the BJP’s gain only in States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Delhi where the two parties have a direct contest.

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First Published: Wed, August 14 2013. 05:45 IST