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UPA hoped BJP itself will nip Modi

| | in Usual Suspects

In the realms of belief or even superstition, Friday the 13th is regarded as either hugely unlucky by some or just another day by others.

That the BJP leadership chose this day to push through the formal anointment of Narendra Modi as the NDA's Prime Ministerial candidate suggests that their court astrologers didn't attach negative consequences to a major decision taken on that day.

The same can hardly be said for those who were determined to prevent Modi's elevation to a position that has hitherto been occupied by only Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. They seemed hell-bent on preventing any categorical announcement till after the Assembly election. The calculation was two-fold. First, it would be argued that there were other Chief Ministers who equally deserved the post of shadow Prime Minister. The tussle between the Chief Ministers in turn would give the requisite space for Advani to emerge as a compromise choice by virtue of his standing as the "tallest leader" of the party. Second, and I am not making this suggestion casually, there was a plot to use the intervening months, to implicate Modi in a judicial tangle, with some discreet help from those whose business it is to blend politics with skulduggery.

By persisting with the Parliamentary Board meeting on Friday evening, the BJP, in effect, pre-empted the possibility of an unending bout of machinations that would have left the wider world believing that the main Opposition party was in the throes of a civil war and unfit for a role in Government. The likelihood of some dissenting voices to Modi's anointment always existed from those who feared their own marginalisation from the centre-stage of politics.

That the BJP leadership heard them out and then proceeded to do what had to be done hasn't compromised the larger project to win power in 2014. If anything, it has certainly reinforced the party's democratic credentials. That the patriarch chose to wallow in petulant isolation didn't enhance his image as a 'selfless politician' (as his former aide claimed on TV); it made him an object of pity, if not outright ridicule, a man who was out of tune with the contemporary world. To put it bluntly, Advani demanded a veto and threw a tantrum when this was politely rejected.

To those who are familiar with the inner life of the BJP and its wider parivar, Advani's dogged resistance to an onrush of sentiment was doomed to failure. However, there are reasons to believe that many people, not least the Congress, felt otherwise. At a time when the regime has been starved of good news, the curious projection of RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan as India's newest sex symbol and the prospect of a civil war in the BJP were developments the clever Congress looked forward to.

Indeed, the Congress strategy for the past two months, since Modi was appointed head of the BJP campaign committee, was to underplay its significance by painting the Gujarat CM as a small-time local leader. It was no accident that over the past few weeks the Congress has fielded a disproportionate number of its Gujarat State leaders on TV shows where the discussions centred on Modi. The plan was always clear: Paint Modi as a small-town upstart, at best a regional chieftain, and puncture his standing in that way. The Congress strategy was designed to pin Modi down on the so-called human development parameters of Gujarat. The ruling party strategists reposed enormous faith in the ability of Advani to check the Modi advance.

In public pronouncements, the Congress has feigned complete disinterest in the internal affairs of the BJP. Its more supercilious Ministers (most of them, unfortunately, alumni of my old college, St Stephen's) have barely been able to conceal their social contempt of a leader who didn't share a privileged upbringing.

However, behind this apparent unconcern has lurked a great fear which in turn bred tactical confusion. The Congress believes that Modi is generating a euphoric response and they believed that the most appropriate way to stop the challenger was to either rule him out of the race or create sufficient controversy within the BJP to muddy the waters. In short, the Congress banked on extraneous issues such as the well-crafted Vanzara letter and the Advani revolt to be its containment strategy.

Now that this strategy has failed and Modi is indeed trying to convert Election 2014 into a quasi-presidential race, the Congress has to rethink its strategy. The Trojan Horse approach has to yield to a more frontal confrontation. For the Congress, the coming days pose an intellectual challenge.

Should it try to convert the whole battle into an anti-Modi jihad? Wouldn't that, however, involve playing by the rules set by the other side? Should it pretend Modi doesn't exist and merely highlight Sonia Gandhi's Lady Bountiful acts? That is a possibility but somehow a Bharat Nirman-centric approach may end up being a crashing bore.

Should it emphasise its lofty "idea of India" and leave the demolition of Modi to intellectuals such as a TV anchor who suggested to her Facebook friends that with Modi as PM, Indians would be encouraged to drink their own urine for dessert? Facetiousness apart, the Congress is still coming to terms with a viable strategy to counter Modi. Rahul Gandhi's dilettantism isn't helping matters. Actually, the heir-apparent could even pose a problem for the BJP: How do you defeat an opponent who refuses to join the fight?

 
 
 
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