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On Sunday, the Bharatiya Janata Party appointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi chairman of its campaign committee ahead of national elections due no later than next summer. With this India’s largest opposition party has effectively signaled that Mr. Modi is its presumptive prime ministerial candidate.
The new role gives the 62-year-old politician a chance to shape his party’s campaign strategy, and bolster his own popularity while barnstorming the nation for votes. If you’re in India, expect to see (even) more of Mr. Modi on TV and on Twitter over the next 12 months.
The elevation was not without drama. In the run-up to the announcement, the Gujarat leader had to ward off an apparent rearguard battle against him by party co-founder and former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani. The 85-year-old Mr. Advani, who reportedly still harbors political ambitions of his own, refused to attend the party convention in Goa that made the decision.
Though he cited an upset stomach, Mr. Advani was apparently well enough to blog about a movie and record a video message for a memorial lecture in Jaipur. Several of his protégés stayed away from Goa as well.
Mr. Modi’s elevation is roughly equivalent to winning the primaries in an American party. The next stage of his political career will be determined by voters, not by sharp-elbowed party colleagues with ambitions of their own. But for students of Indian politics the chief minister’s public besting of Mr. Advani, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, also marks something deeper-a generational shift in the party. Or, as the political commentator Ashok Malik put it, Mr. Modi’s rise represents “the moment of truth and transition for the BJP.”
This transition is long overdue. Arguably, for the first time in 40 years the party has found a leader more influential with its foot soldiers and most fervent supporters than Mr. Advani. Indeed, the senior leader’s influence predates the creation of the BJP itself. In 1973, Mr. Advani and his colleague (future prime minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee took command of the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, by turfing out its then president. Seven years later, the duo were among the BJP’s co-founders. Though an ailing Mr. Vajpayee has hardly been seen in recent years, Mr. Advani has retained much of his clout. He was the BJP-led alliance’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009.
Mr. Advani is widely credited with standing up the party by taking it from a measly two seats in the lower house of Parliament in 1984 to 182 seats in 1998, largely on the back of a campaign to build a temple at a site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims in the northern city of Ayodhya. And though his influence has waned since 2005-when he enraged the party rank-and-file by referring to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah as “secular” on a visit to Pakistan-this is the first time a majority of his party colleagues, many of whom owe their careers to him, have signaled their preference for another leader.
That said, those in a hurry to anoint Mr. Modi as India’s next prime minister will likely be disappointed. As I argued in my WSJ Asia column last week, the odds remain stacked against both the BJP and its de facto new leader. India has a long history of choosing consensus-building centrists as PM. It has never chosen a polarizing figure like Mr. Modi-loved by his admirers, but loathed by his detractors.
Over the course of the past decade, Mr. Modi has earned a reputation for efficiency and honesty that most politicians would envy. His pro-business economic message is arguably exactly what India needs. Nonetheless, the shadow of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which killed more than 1,000 people, about three-fourths of them Muslim, will make it hard for a BJP-led coalition with Mr. Modi at the helm to attract partners. Many parties depend on the votes of India’s 150 million strong Muslim population for whom Mr. Modi remains a figure of fear and loathing.
In response to my prognosis, some of Mr. Modi’s supporters claim that history doesn’t matter; that drawing inferences from the past is a mug’s game; and that India is on the brink of unprecedented change. To back this view, a clutch of polls suggest that Mr. Modi is easily India’s most popular politician. But while there’s no gainsaying Mr. Modi’s appeal, translating it into an electoral victory in a parliamentary system requires vast amounts of wishful thinking. In theory, it could happen. In practice you’re unlikely to lose any money betting against it.
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