Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nitish or Modi - Who will make a better PM of India?

By M H Ahssan

When Narendra Modi threw his hat into the ring to become India's next prime minister, he never bargained for the fact that he would stumble on a skull cap. The now famous "cap incident" was a rare instance of spontaneity in a carefully choreographed Sadbhavna fast in Ahmedabad, when the Gujarat Chief Minister, in a gesture of spare-me-the-honour, rejected the cap offered by Maulana Hazrat Sufi Imam Sahi Sayeed Mehendi Husain. For a leader desperate to reach out to the Muslims of Gujarat and to Indians at large, that moment preserved by cameras was heavy with meaning, especially so when Modi displays a penchant for wearing a variety of colourful headgear that display the country's ethnic diversity.

The three-day amity fast was designed by India's most popular state administrator as a Gandhian short-cut to gain political acceptability needed for a national leader-and to announce his own ticket for the top job in 2014. The queue of BJP stalwarts, all as ambitious as Modi but with less credentials, was a sign of his rising clout as frontrunner. But when the curtain dropped on the drama, did Modi look merely desperate-an impatient player overdoing the part?

The question became inevitable as the noise accompanying the self-canonisation in Ahmedabad was in stark contrast to the silence in Patna. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, shares only one passion with Modi: development. When Modi hard-sells his own mythology as a 21st century Sardar Patel who deserves a space larger than Gujarat, Nitish quietly waits in the wings, biding his time, patiently sure of himself. When Modi performs his way into front pages and onto prime time television, intimidating his colleagues in BJP and allies in NDA, Nitish takes backstage in Patna and refuses to supply the mandatory soundbites. If the flamboyance in Ahmedabad was divisive, the silence in Patna was reassuring. When the show was over and Modi had his lemonade, one man stood between him and his unhidden prime ministerial ambition: Nitish Kumar.

What is it that makes Modi, unarguably the most popular leader on the Right, a polarising figure in spite of his commendable achievement in bridging the communal divide in post-2002 Gujarat? Why is it that he is still a haunted man, forever struggling for acceptability beyond Gujarat? In opinion polls conducted by india today and even other publications, Modi consistently maintains his lead as India's best chief minister and the best possible prime minister in a non-upa government, but he still cannot take a break from the project of makeover: he is always a work in progress. Modi is trapped in his own image as an uncompromising Hindutva leader. That may be fine with the faithful but in India the gold standard of a right-wing prime minister was set by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the abiding embodiment of inclusive leadership.

Modi is still the proverbial hardliner, and hardline can get you success, not final success. Then, there is the legal labyrinth of riot-related cases which he continues to navigate, and it is unlikely that he or anyone knows till when. Modi has his rebuttal ready for the harrumphers. "When I took over, many felt I was too inexperienced to lead the government but today the same people say I have proved myself. So opinion can change over a period of time. But there is a vested interest group in India with intellectual ability that opposed Sardar Patel, Morarji Desai, Atalji, Advaniji and now me. So the belief that I am a polarising figure is not justified," he tells Newsindia.

This indomitable faith in himself is not totally misplaced, for he is still the BJP's best bet for 2014. A Modi showcased as India's best administrator with a mass base, and communication skills to match, will be a formidable force. His strength is Gujarat, as much as it is his curse. He now wants a bigger gallery to mount his bestselling portrait as a clean ruler and a development fanatic. Gujarat is the development model that industry moguls continue to toast and The Economist writes about. Under Modi's stewardship, the state has become an economic powerhouse whose growth rate is higher than the country's. Gujarat generates 16 per cent of India's industrial output and 22 per cent of its exports. From infrastructure to agriculture, from education to green technology, Gujarat has taken huge strides, showing the rest of India what focused leadership can achieve.

Says industrialist and president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mahendra Patel: "Modi's greatest asset is his missionary spirit, which has forced the bureaucracy and industry to act. His development model has a trickle-down effect to the lowest levels." A tough administrator, he refused to slow down the drive against farmers indulging in theft to draw ground water for irrigation on the eve of the 2007 polls despite pressure from BJP MLAs. He has become an apostle of participative development. "If you look at India's past 40 years, you will find that ruling parties tailored their budget with a view to strengthen vote banks. They created models that made people dependent on Government. But in Gujarat, we rejected the vote-bank based model and created a new model," he says.

As an organiser and a campaigner who can play with the mass mind, he now wants to sell the slogan "Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas" to a wider audience. And within the BJP, in spite of the charioteer-in-chief Advani's refusal to retire from the roadshow, no one is more qualified to do so. As a senior BJP leader tells Newsindia, "Ultimately, who else is there?" Publicly, though, party leaders maintain that it is too early for the party to choose a prime ministerial candidate.

Arun Jaitley, in the run-up to the 2009 elections, had queered the pitch by endorsing Modi's name for prime ministership in 2014. Today the opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, who is himself emerging as a national leader worthy of the top job, says the focus is on putting the BJP house in order. "The elections are still three years away," he adds. Party president Nitin Gadkari too says no decision has been taken yet to project anybody as the prime minister candidate for 2014. "We have not decided on Narendrabhai's name. His fast was not to become the prime minister. It is to clear the misunderstanding about Gujarat," he says.

He admits that there are problems in endorsing Modi's name because of the 2002 riots taint. "He cannot do much about it" but the party is making efforts to focus more on his development agenda, administrative skills and dynamic leadership, he says. "If Modi can prove that he can defeat Congress by a decisive margin in the Assembly elections, it will become a little easier for him," Gadkari says. But he is categorical about the possibility of Nitish as usurper: "He may be a key ally but remains an outsider. No worker in the party will campaign for him." Will allies accept Modi? "Ultimately votes count. If we get more votes, allies will automatically come. BJP reaching 165-170 seats is important. And when you go to war, you go with your best General. Modi is the best General that the party has," says a senior party leader.

The General must first win the war within. Modi has hardly been on talking terms with Gadkari ever since rss pracharak Sanjay Joshi was reinducted into the party to strengthen BJP in Uttar Pradesh against the Gujarat strongman's wishes. His weight-reducing bariatric surgery was a well-timed excuse for the party boss to avoid the photo-op with Modi during the Sadbhavna mission. Sushma Swaraj, who made it to Ahmedabad, was visibly uncomfortable in the company of the man who she thinks is responsible for her stint in the wilderness after her defeat from Bellary in 1999. Party insiders feel that Modi agreed to give a Rajya Sabha berth to Smriti Irani only to counter Swaraj.

Apart from Advani, Jaitley is the only central leader with whom Modi enjoys a good rapport, though Jaitley himself has prime ministerial ambitions. The rss is already working on a succession plan for Gujarat as Modi is convinced that he deserves an office higher than the one he occupies now. The new generation, swayed by the political zeitgeist, is sceptical about the Modi brand. "While the youth of the country may be on a warpath against corruption, demanding an honest administration, they are also looking for a more inclusive social structure. In this day and age, Modi may never be able to wish away the 2002 blot. It is there to stay. The party will have to do better than a Modi," says a young BJP leader.

That is why Modi's desperation is Nitish's hope. Parties like TDP, Biju Janata Dal and agp-traditionally anti-Congress but wary of alienating minority support in BJP's company-would be happy embracing NDA if Nitish Kumar is at the helm. Apart from his proven record in winning Muslim votes, he is winning, like Modi, in the politics of development as well. As an administrator, he has addressed critical areas ranging from restoration of law and order to health, educational services and building roads.

As a leader, he has pushed targeted social welfare schemes. According to his acolytes, if Nitish can make Bihar a functional state, he has the potential to change India too on behalf of NDA. Nitish's biggest disadvantage, though, is his electoral base. He may have the credibility and character to become a national leader, but JD-U, with only 20 members in 543-memberLok Sabha, is not a political force beyond Bihar. Though he has a good political chemistry with leaders like Naveen Patnaik, no regional satrap has come forward to propose his leadership.

The biggest roadblock for him will be Modi himself. With less than six months' age difference-the elder of the two, Modi, turned 61 only last week-the two can neutralise each other. There is no love lost between the two. The relationship worsened on May 10, 2009 when Modi, during an NDA rally at Ludhiana, clasped Nitish Kumar's hand and forcibly raised it as a show of solidarity.

Many considered it as Modi's revenge because Nitish had earlier scuttled Modi's plans for campaigning in Bihar for the Lok Sabha elections. Senior jd-u leaders seeking anonymity maintain that Nitish is mentally prepared to pull the plug on the alliance if Modi is named the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. With 117 jd-u MLAs in the 243-member Bihar assembly-besides a handful of Independent supporters-he thinks he can afford to take the risk. (BJP is his ally in Bihar.) Nitish has succeeded in keeping Bihar offlimits for Modi.

Since taking over as Bihar Chief Minister in November 2005, Nitish has put his foot down on Modi campaigning in the state. Nitish does not even mention Modi's name on public platforms, and considers the Gujarat chief minister as a communal leader unacceptable to his inclusive brand of politics. In June 2010, Nitish raged against advertisements carrying a picture of them together at Ludhiana which were placed in Bihar newspapers by Modi supporters. The advertisements had boasted about Gujarat's flood-relief aid to Bihar. Nitish took no time to withdraw his dinner invitation to BJP top brass then present in Patna for BJP's national executive meet.

He not only refused to attend the BJP rally held at the conclusion of the meet but also returned the Rs 5 crore given by the Gujarat government. Besides derailing the BJP's national executive meet, Nitish almost rocked the alliance. He knows that BJP cannot afford to lose someone like him who continues to be wooed by the Congress. He now hopes to keep Delhi inaccessible to his rival, though, while talking to Newsindia, he is characteristically diplomatic: "The BJP is yet to officially declare anyone as its prime ministerial candidate. We can express our opinion only after an announcement is made."

The opinion is unlikely to please Modi. Come 2014 and it will be a clash between the socialist and the saffronite in the opposition for the highest political position. It will be a battle to behold.

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