As is known, if Narendra Modi wants to play a larger role on the national stage, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to record a thumping victory in the forthcoming Gujarat elections. What this means in real terms is that the party will have to win at least 117 seats, its tally in 2007, out of the State’s 182 assembly seats.
But will this be enough considering that it had won 127 in 2002? Arguably, if Modi wants to demonstrate his total command over the State before moving on to greener pastures, the party will have to reach or overtake the higher figure. Otherwise, any shortfall will be grist to the mills of the chief minister’s critics since it will suggest a decline in his popularity.
Ironically, the two figures of 117 and 127 seats, which give a comfortable majority to the ruling party in normal circumstances, can no longer seem enough where Modi’s ambitions are concerned. The disadvantage of a larger-than-life personality, who also likes to equate himself with the State, is that the political expectations about him are inordinately high. What is enough for ordinary mortals can no longer seem sufficient for a poster boy.
However, what may be of some concern to the BJP is that between 2002 and 2007, its number of seats and vote share dropped from 127 to 117 and from 49.8 per cent to 49.1. Although the voting percentage fell only marginally, it has to be seen against the fact that the Congress’s tally of seats rose from 51 to 59 while its vote share also rose marginally from 39.2 per cent to 39.6.
The scene changed quite a lot in the 2004 parliamentary elections in which the Congress won 12 seats (equivalent to covering 90 assembly constituencies), with a voting percentage of 43.8 per cent against the BJP’s 14 seats with a vote share of 47.3 per cent. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, the BJP won 15 seats, which is equivalent to 105 assembly constituencies, with a vote share of 46.5 per cent while the Congress won 11 seats with a vote share of 43.4 per cent.
While the Congress has evidently fared better in the parliamentary polls than in the assembly elections, it is worth noting that the BJP’s tally of seats in the assembly fell from 127 in 2002 to 92 in 2004, if the results in the assembly segments of the Lok Sabha elections are taken into account, then the total went up to 117 in 2007, and finally down to 105 assembly constituencies in the 2009 parliamentary contest.
It has to be remembered that the decline has taken place despite the widespread belief that the Congress does not exist in Gujarat, as Prof. JS Bandukwala, who was nearly killed in the 2002 riots, once said. In any event, the Congress’s political weakness in the absence of a leader to match Modi’s stature is an accepted fact although its vote share hovers around a respectable 40 per cent.
Irrespective of whether this base of support is enough or not, several other factors can be taken into consideration. One is the fact that the BJP’s tally in recent years was the highest in 2002, when the riots polarised the communities as never before and led to a surge of support from the communal-minded Hindus for Modi. That kind of polarization is no longer there. Besides, Modi’s overtures to the minorities during his sadbhavna or goodwill fasts may have confused the more virulent of his admirers.
His run-in with former fellow pracharak Sanjay Joshi, when the chief minister sulked for months, staying away from the election campaigns in UP and elsewhere and from the party’s national conclaves, did not show Modi in a favourable light. If anything, the episode highlighted the perception of him as a loner, which was confirmed by the final parting of ways between him and former chief minister Keshubhai Patel after a long period of estrangement, during which the latter accused the chief minister of imposing a reign of terror in the State.
Clearly, the conditions have changed considerably from what they were in 2002, when he won on what can be called a communal tide, and in 2007, when the remnants of the earlier anti-Muslim feelings were still there and may have been exacerbated by Sonia Gandhi’s jibe against him of being a “maut ka saudagar” or a merchant of death.
Now the focus is more on his suspected prime ministerial ambitions with the result that it has caused a rift in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) openly opposing any move by the BJP to select Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. But it isn’t only the JD (U) which is against Modi in this respect, the PM wannabes in the BJP itself may not be too unhappy if the party fails to win 117 seats, the benchmark of Modi’s approval ratings.