Millennium Post

Meeting the Modi challenge

Even as political parties, national and regional, are biding their time for designing electoral strategies, with no immediate dissolution of Lok Sabha in sight, the Congress-led UPA is now faced with a frontal challenge from BJP with its nomination of an aggressively poised Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. This is the first clear drawing of battle lines for 2014, which an ever-complacent Congress Party cannot fail to respond, as Modi is not to be simply dismissed as a self-promoted Hindutva leader, going round the country on a narrow agenda of condemnation of UPA rule and attacking the prime minister for governance failures.

Indeed, the surprisingly business-like monsoon session of Parliament, which adopted some key legislation including on food security, land acquisition and pensions, had created an impression that UPA was gaining a breather for some six months in which to undo the damage to the economy and restore stability and growth. Neither the BJP nor the regional satraps seemed then in a hurry to bring down the UPA government lacking absolute majority. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Chidambaram were no doubt convinced that UPA-II would be able to complete its term with more business-friendly policies and possibly some voter-friendly measures closer to the poll. But the dynamics has now changed with the BJP ceremonially anointing Narendra Modi to lead the party for the Lok Sabha elections and virtually kicking off its election campaign. BJP President Rajnath Singh claimed that Modi’s elevation reflected the enthusiasm of party cadres and welcome accorded to him by people in general.

However dismissive of him, as divisive and majoritarian, by professedly secular-minded parties and many independent observers, Modi has not only brought about an atmospheric change within BJP, brightening hopes of his successfully leading the party to power in 2014 as well as attracting sizeable
segments of the middle class and business community. His ascension in the BJP hierarchy, with the backing of RSS, the party’s fountainhead, may have initially dismayed other aspiring leaders, apart from its eldest leader L K Advani, who also seems to have later reconciled himself to the move. What has gone in his favour is not just his winning record as chief minister thrice but more the image he has created for himself widely as an effective administrator focused on development, which makes Gujarat distinctive.

The Congress, while anointing Rahul Gandhi as its future leader, seems to rest on the strength of its collective leadership projecting UPA’s government’s pro-poor accomplishments over a decade in power, bringing about rural prosperity. They exude quiet confidence in retaining the people’s mandate, especially with its massive food security and land rights laws. While UPA can claim that it had put India on a high-growth trajectory and enhanced its global status, the current slowdown, unabated inflation and sharp decline in the value of the rupee have thrown up red signals to overcome for the Congress if it is to regain a measure of credibility for seeking a third successive mandate in 2014. But the Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and UPA, which is widely perceived to be feckless, will find the going tough, in defying anti-incumbency factor, even as the BJP sets great store for itself by it, in the forthcoming national election it terms as a ‘leadership referendum’. BJP, leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), wielding power in 1999-2004, suffered two successive reverses in 2004 and 2009. It has now found in Modi a Messiah for its resurrection. A personality cult is being built around the already self-promoted but highly articulate Narendra Modi as one who would project a new vision of India’s development. The party which for years has failed to provide a constructive opposition or project any alternative programme, is now determined under Modi to bring the Congress-led UPA into disrepute before the electorate for corruption, economic crisis and price rise but promise to deliver ‘good governance and development’ in its blueprint for the revival of the economy. The Congress would be called upon to match the Modi rhetoric, as the Gujarat leader has begun propounding on major national and security issues on a relatively sober pitch, throwing new ideas in the process.  He is keen that key economic policies should evolve around the concept of ‘India First’ embodying party commitment to good and effective governance for growth and development and enhancing the nation’s prestige abroad.

Of its leaders of national standing, the Congress President Sonia Gandhi. it looks, may not be able to keep up tight schedules of campaigning as in the past, given her health status. Rahul Gandhi, hopefully, would therefore step up his own plans for electioneering, even if the Lok Sabha poll is months away.  Foreign policy and national security will not be left untouched by Modi and the prime minister would be called upon to clarify where the country stands in relation to these matters.
As the Modi campaign gathers momentum in the coming weeks and months, the Congress may have also to re-think some of its approaches for arriving at a winning strategy. This may include possible pre-poll tie-ups with regional parties in UP and Bihar, apart from efforts to rebuild old alliances with Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and Thiru Karunanidhi’s DMK. Neither the Congress nor the BJP could go it alone at the hustings, going by past experience.  While it may be too early to gauge voter sentiment, some surveys predict BJP emerging as the largest single party. This looks more likely with the induction of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Modi will certainly make a bid to rope in as many smaller parties as possible in order to gain the coveted absolute majority. Strong regional parties in power in states like UP West Bengal Tamil Nadu and Orissa are having their own plans for a big haul of Lok Sabha seats with which to assert their respective roles in the polity. A Third Force thus looks a non-starter. These parties have their own reservations on coming together and prefer to await the poll outcome to determine their roles in a new set-up.

The Congress, having no strong base in Tamil Nadu, will have again to go back to its trusted ally in Karunanidhi. DMK had walked out of UPA over India’s failure to take a strong stand against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council. Karunanidhi, who is desperately trying to restore his party’s tarred image, may lay down some stiff terms for future co-operation with UPA, which may win only a few seats in the bargain. The AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, not losing her grip, is determined to capture not less than 25 to 30 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats. Thus, in Southern region, the Congress may no longer command the same strength in Lok Sabha as in 2009. Aside from Tamil Nadu, the major reverse would be in Andhra Pradesh where the bifurcation decision has antagonised the bigger Seemandhra region. The gain will only be in Telangana. The party may manage to hold its strength in Kerala but would make significant gain in Karnataka where the Congress displaced BJP in May last. IPA
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