During a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) meeting held in Goa in 2002, then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee indirectly asked Gujarat Chief Minister (CM) Narendra Modi to resign in the wake of his failure to contain the communal carnage in the state that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims. Modi’s position was ultimately saved, thanks to the defense of senior party leader Lal Krishna Advani.
However, the BJP could not save its government, losing to a resurgent Congress Party in a 2004 election. Many analysts believe that the Gujarat riots played a major role in the defeat of the Hindutva Party.
Last Saturday, senior BJP leader Advani skipped the party’s National Executive Meeting to protest the decision to make Modi chief of the campaign committee. The decision makes the Gujarat leader a de facto prime ministerial candidate for the BJP in the country’s 2014 general elections.
But the decision was not unanimous. Some of the BJP’s other top leaders also decided to skip the crucial meet. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, who also skipped the meet, has even suggested that Modi’s elevation is part of “a larger conspiracy”. He added that the "real issues have been buried" and that party decisions seem to be emerging from "the quicksand of an imagined clash of personalities".
The unease came to a head with the resignation of Advani from all party posts. The senior BJP leader cited his misgivings about the party’s direction, virtually dividing the party and reinforcing Modi’s image as a polarizing figure.
Yet, Modi’s promotion is not sudden. Long before his third successive victory in Gujarat in 2012, he has been working overtime to change his image. Further, some analysts believe Modi’s rise within the BJP ranks can be attributed at least in part to the lack of a popular leader in the Hindutva party.
The BJP became prominent in 1980s and 1990s on the plank of Hindu nationalism, which promotes a majoritarian agenda. Advani acted as the face of this agenda in the 1990s when he single-handedly propelled the BJP from the margins to the mainstream by campaigning on the divisive issue of building a Hindu temple at the site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Many believe this spot is the birthplace of the Hindu God Rama.
Despite trying to project himself as a modern and progressive face of the party, Modi’s image as a hardcore Hindutva leader makes him very popular among BJP cadres, and a strong contender for prime minister if the BJP comes to power in the 2014 general elections.
But the question remains: will he be acceptable to India as a whole? India Today recently cited ten reasons why Modi will find it difficult to move to Delhi. According to the article, the BJP will struggle to win a simple majority of 272 seats in a house of 545 simply due to its limited geographical reach. Other obstacles cited include Modi’s presence as a polarizing figure, which may dissuade allies from siding with him, as well as the reality that minority Muslims and other voters opposed to the rightist party will likely favor the Congress in the elections.
This polarization makes Modi a double-edged sword for the party. If he is the BJP’s greatest strength, he is also its weakest link.
"His elevation is dangerous for the country's pluralism and justice. He is authoritative and almost forced his way up in the party," said Zoya Hasan, a political scientist in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Still others say that Modi’s anointment signals a generational shift in the BJP, with the 62-year-old Gujarat CM as its new face.
Ultimately, by elevating Modi the party remains attached to its majoritarian agenda, which has been the main factor for its stilted growth among India’s secular-minded and religious minorities.
Things have come full circle for the BJP. If the new India needs rapid economic growth it also needs a reassertion of its core secular principles. While the new leadership of the main opposition party may succeed in the former, it lags in the latter.
Editor's note: This article has been modified from its original version.