It would be hardly surprising if Modi decides to give a wide berth to Karnataka given the paucity of time until the next General Election. The BJP won a handsome 18 of 28 parliamentary seats in 2009 — more than what it won in Gujarat. But the party is in a mess in the southern state since losing power there last month. That loss was so bad that the BJP wound up behind not only the victor, the Congress, but also the JD(Secular), a regional player. The departure of former strongman and former chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa, on corruption charges hurt the BJP immeasurably as he floated his own party in November and took away crucial votes.
Modi seems to have got off on the wrong foot in Odisha. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said this week that the BJP’s newfound hero has little to offer by way of solutions to the nation’s various problems. Currently, the BJP has no mps from Odisha. In 1999, it rode piggyback on the BJD, winning nine of the state’s 21 parliamentary seats. In 2004, the alliance helped the BJP win seven seats, equalling its tally in 1998. But angry over anti-Christian violence in the state by rss affiliates, Patnaik abruptly broke the alliance a month ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha election, leading to the BJP’s wipeout. Now, Patnaik holds the parliamentary key to his state, and appears to be in no mood to oblige Modi.
Among the states with fewer than 20 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP once ruled mighty high in Jharkhand, which has 14 seats, winning 12 of them in 1996 and ’98. It was wiped out in 2004 and recovered somewhat to take half of the state’s seats in 2009. But such has been the nasty politicking in Jharkhand lately that the BJP and Modi may well find it difficult to return to the halcyon results of 1996 and ’98.
The BJP would also desperately want Modi to revive the party’s fortunes in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, or NCT, which has seven Lok Sabha seats. In 1999, the BJP had swept the region, winning every seat — a crowning glory for the party that had made solid inroads in Delhi on the back of the Ayodhya movement, winning four seats in 1989 and again in 1991, five in 1996 and six in 1998. But in 2004, it was jolted from its complacence, being routed in every single seat in Delhi save one. And in the 2009 election, it lost even that, with the Congress sweeping all seven.
Decent numbers for the BJP may yet come from Chhattisgarh, where it holds 10 of the 11 seats, because the Congress has been weakened by the killing of its top leaders in an attack by Maoist rebels last month. But in Assam, where it already holds its highest ever, four of 14 seats, Modi might not find it easy to jack that number up. In Haryana, too, where the BJP snapped five of the 10 seats in 1999, it drew a blank in 2009. Its former partners in that state have fallen on even worse times. In Kerala, the politics is split between a communist-led coalition and a Congress-led one, both virulently opposed to the BJP.
THE BEST OF THE BJP
So where does this leave Modi? If a ‘Best of BJP’ tally is created by totalling the party’s best ever performances in individual states since 1984, when it contested its first Lok Sabha election, it adds up to only 251 seats — 21 short of a simple majority. Even if Modi pulls it off outdoing the BJP’s best ever scores, he may find it difficult to garner support of allies other than the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Akali Dal in Punjab and either the dmk or the aiadmk in Tamil Nadu to back him for the top job.
Of course, such a tally is only hypothetical. But it shows the enormous difficulty that Modi and the BJP face in their bid to win the next General Election based on their past and current performances. The BJP has had several great electoral boosters in its three-decade history and, greyed watchers might agree, the current so-called “Modi Mania” is not as energised as those momentums that spun solid wins for the party.
Founded in 1980, the BJP made a disastrous parliamentary start four years later winning only two seats while then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress won a landslide in the wake of his mother’s assasination. Even Vajpayee had lost. But five years later the BJP rose to a breathtaking 89 seats. In 1991, less than two years later, the BJP leapt further to notch 121 seats. Both those victories were triggered by a massive political campaign that the BJP launched across India to build the temple in Ayodhya. Such was the political power that campaign unleashed that the BJP took only four General Elections and 16 years to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha ahead of the Congress, a century old party that had won India’s freedom.
The BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, in 1998 and 1999 by projecting Vajpayee, a veteran politician perceived to be gifted with gravitas and wisdom, as its pm candidate. When his government turned out to be as disappointing as any, the voters gave it the short shrift in 2004. Does Modi have any such momentum?
At the moment, there is no evidence of that. Modi’s hardline image, built on the massacre of Muslims in 2002, is an 11-year-old story and may not convert passions into votes for him as much as he may want. The BJP used him quite a bit in the elections of 2004 and 2009 to not so happy results. In fact, his image as a national security hawk did not help the party in 2009, which lost all the six seats in Mumbai, where he had campaigned substantially, despite the 26/11 attacks. In comparison, the BJP’s hardline Hindu supremacist image built on the Ayodhya campaign had seemed to be far more pervasive and deeply embedded across India during the 1990s — and that brought it good results in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
Modi’s second calling card — of good governance and bringing development to Gujarat in his 11-year reign as chief minister — appears to have even less meat. Though Advani was playing politics last week when he said Modi had only improved his state as it was already developed when he took over, Advani could not have made that statement had it not been essentially the truth. It would be reasonable to predict that as the election season nears, Modi’s claim of governance and his economic prescriptions would be far more closely scrutinised than ever before.
So what makes Modi’s supporters, inside and outside the BJP, so ecstatic with him taking charge of the party’s campaign? The answer is simple. There is a total absence of any credible leadership in the BJP. Even though the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is widely seen to have made a mess of governance, the BJP is nervous that a negative vote against the incumbent may not be enough.
The BJP spinmeisters have drummed up a crescendo that the party’s “cadres” are unitedly demanding Modi’s leadership for the next Lok Sabha election. Even if that is true, the claim can be accepted only in good faith as such cadres are yet to pour out in towns and cities with their reported demand.
What is certainly true though is that the BJP’s second, third and fourth-rung leaders and camp followers across India see next year’s General Election as their last chance to grab power and the massive spinoffs of pelf and perks that come with it. They think Advani just cannot bring them that, having failed the last time round. Hence Modi.