Target Modi by Minhaz Merchant
As she choreographs Rahul’s political trajectory, there is one Indian politician UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi fears most: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Why? It can’t be the 2002 communal riots alone. More people have been killed in communal riots and pogroms outside Gujarat – including the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom – than in Gujarat.
It can’t be that Gujarat has been a BJP fortress for 17 years. The Congress has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh for 23 years and in West Bengal for 35. It can’t be governance. Gujarat has been recognised internationally as India’s best governed large state. It has had no riots since 2002. There is little apparent nepotism or corruption and certainly no family dynasty. And yet, Modi remains the principal target for vilification. An entire ecosystem has been built to sustain this campaign: journalists, social activists and local dissidents.
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The stakes are high. If Modi wins over 110 out of 182 seats in the state assembly election due by December 2012, he will become the frontrunner as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014. The BJP may not officially declare him as the Prime Ministerial candidate to avoid ruptures in the NDA coalition, but the pressure from BJP cadres will be enormous.
A Modi-led BJP could well win between 180 and 200 Lok Sabha seats on its own due to polarisation of the majority vote. The minority vote is already largely lost to the BJP and if what’s left flees it will have little electoral consequence. A Sushma- or Jaitley-led BJP would probably give the BJP around 140 seats despite the likely collapse of the Congress to around 100 seats in 2014 on account of widespread public anger against corruption and inflation.
Sonia is a canny political tactician. She knows that the most realistic possibility for the Congress in 2014 is to win upwards of 100 seats and then offer support from outside to a regional front as it did to Chandra Shekhar for five months in 1990-91 and H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in 1996-98. But to achieve that, she needs to keep the BJP tally down to 140 seats to rule out any possibility of an NDA-3 government. With Sushma, Jaitley, Advani or Nitish as the NDA’s Prime Ministerial candidate, that may just be achievable. With Modi, it will not.
This of course is why Nitish Kumar has been dangled the Prime Ministerial bait: Congress strategists know that the anodyne Nitish as the NDA’s Prime Ministerial candidate will not increase the BJP’s voteshare significantly.
Examine the chart below. It shows national voteshare and Lok Sabha seats won by the Congress and the BJP in the last four general elections: 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009. In both 1998 and 1999, the BJP won power with 182 seats but, due to coalition partner math, clocked voteshare respectively of 25.59% and 23.75%. To get voteshare back up to over 25% and win 180-200 seats, the BJP needs a voteshare swing of around 7% from the dismal 18.80% it garnered in 2009 (116 seats).
Lok Sabha elections (1998-2009)
With Sushma, Jaitley, Nitish or Advani – despite their competence – as the NDA’s Prime Ministerial candidate, the BJP can at best expect a swing of 3-4%. That would take its votehare to around 22% and (with fewer allies than 1998 to help with the voteshare-seat math) around 140 seats.
That is the outcome Sonia would want: keep the BJP down to 140, curtail the Congress’ loss to 100-120 and support from outside an unstable government formed by regional parties – before pulling it down (as in 1991, 1997 and 1998) to force a midterm poll in 2016.
One man stands in the way of this strategy succeeding: Modi. If he wins Gujarat comfortably, he would become the favourite to lead the BJP – and the NDA – into 2014. Nitish’s JD(U) would of course walk out – but with what? A mere 20 Lok Sabha seats.
Modi’s polarisation effect could plausibly increase the swing in the BJP’s voteshare from the normal anti-incumbent 3-4% to the 6-7% needed to take it to over 25% and 180-200 seats. The Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal and AIADMK would contribute 60-70 seats, making an NDA-3 viable without the JD(U). Naveen Patnaik’s BJD (already in alliance with the BJP in the Presidential election) and Jagan Mohan’s YSR Congress would then be needed only as tertiary support.
This is the outcome Sonia fears. And that is why Modi is in the Congress’ crosshairs as target no. 1. Power is a money-spinner. The audited balance sheets of political parties (How the black economy subverts India's politics, STOI, April 29, 2012) reveal the several thousand crore rupees political parties receive from anonymous donors. In power now for 8 years, the Congress, according to the two parties’ balance sheets, receives twice as much money as the BJP.
Out of power, its income will plummet. That in turn will stymie its ability to use money to buy future political allies. Out of power, it will also lose the coercive power of the CBI over Mulayam and Mayawati. If it loses badly in 2014, the Congress could be out of power for another 10 years – as it was for 8 years in 1996-2004. Keeping Modi pinned to Gujarat is therefore a do-or-die strategy for Sonia.
This is where Project Rahul comes in. Despite the growing crescendo from Congressmen for a larger role for him in the next few months, Rahul has acquired negative political equity after UP 2012 and Bihar 2010. If the Congress pitches him directly against Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate, the move could backfire.
The Congress is banking on the dynasty’s charisma to carry it through in rural India. That could be an error of judgement. Even if Priyanka campaigns actively for Rahul in 2014, the growing hostility against dynastic politics – manifested in the Congress’ losses in 8 out of 10 assembly constituencies in Amethi and Rae Bareli in the 2012 UP state elections – could limit her appeal.
Sonia’s best hope as ever lies with the poor and Muslims. The poorer the electorate, the more vulnerable it is to charisma, money power, minorityism and false promises. The Congress, in power for 53 of free India’s 65 years, has been a friend of poverty, not the poor, of Muslim backwardness, not Muslim empowerment.
The Congress successfully crippled Anna’s anti-corruption movement. It will try and do the same by targeting Modi as Gujarat 2012 approaches. His success carries too high a price for the Congress.