The Pulse

Can Narendra Modi Swing it for the BJP?

Modi is making efforts to attract young swing voters, but needs to address a number of prickly issues.

By Tridivesh Singh Maini for

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign chief Narendra Modi, who is likely to be announced as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for India’s upcoming elections, is trying to win over young swing voters. Modi’s maneuvering comes at a time when the nation’s urban middle classes are becoming increasingly disenchanted with both mainstream parties in a number of respects. It’s interesting to consider the ways Modi is trying to reach this coveted voting bloc.

For one, he has been distancing himself from the Hindutva (literally, “Hindu-ness”) crowd, although it would be naïve to believe that the occasional invocation of emotive issues by many of his party colleagues is without his tacit approval. Still, Modi has refrained from commenting on any hot-button religious issues. Instead he has launched a sustained onslaught against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dispensation for its multiple failures in the economic and foreign policy realm.

Second, he has been attacking the Congress Party for its allegedly excessive subservience to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, while ignoring other stalwarts in the party such as Lal Bahadur Shastri. This too may strike a chord with many voters who are fervently opposed to the excessive sycophancy of certain individuals in the grand old party.

Third, Modi has been calling on all non-Congress forces to unite. For this purpose, he has invoked many non-Congress leaders and asked for them to contribute towards a front against Congress. During a recent speech at a well-attended party rally in Hyderabad, Modi mentioned the contribution by Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, the late NT Rama Rao, towards galvanizing anti-Congress forces. Rao’s efforts led to the formation of the VP Singh-led Janata Dal government in 1989. During his speech, Modi also urged the current leadership of the TDP to play a role in ousting the current leadership in New Delhi.

Finally, Modi has raised the issue of states being given more of a role in the country’s economic and security policies. Most recently, he spoke about the need for states to be kept in the loop with regard to the Food Security Bill. It is pertinent to point out that his party failed to put forward his concerns while the bill was being debated in the Lok Sabha.

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There is no denying that Modi clearly has a head start over Rahul Gandhi ahead of the upcoming general elections. This is reinforced by many surveys, which show him as clearly the number one choice for prime minister at the moment. Apart from his oratorical skills and image as a good administrator, one of the key reasons for his popularity is his focus on issues that concern young Indians – including many undecided voters.  

Yet, there are also a few questions that Modi needs to answer if he is to convert his growing popularity into an electoral triumph.

For a start, he is woolly at best and vacuous at worst on a number of issues – especially those pertaining to ties, not just with neighboring countries like Pakistan and China, but even the U.S. While he attacks the current government for being soft on Islamabad and Beijing, he has accused it of being obsequious to Washington and following its diktats in economic and foreign policy. Yet, he has not put forth his own foreign policy vision as a possible future PM should. It would have been more purposeful for him to have spoken about how he as Gujarat chief minister has managed to cultivate close ties with Asian and Western countries by promoting economic links.

Another point: while he claims to subscribe to an unabashedly conservative center-right philosophy, his party accepted the Food Security Bill. Modi has criticized the bill in its present form, but has not criticized the idea per se. Firm opposition to the bill would have sent a clear message that the Gujarat CM is not willing to compromise his ideology for narrow political gains.

On the one hand, Modi is trying to win over potential allies, by trying to build his image as a genuine federalist, and one who understands the grievances of states vis-à-vis the center. On the other hand, he is signaling that he would rather see the BJP win a majority on its own, rather than depending on regional parties. This gives the impression that his overtures towards regional parties are phony and opportunistic.

Perhaps most importantly, Modi needs to address the Gujarat riots of 2002, an issue he has successfully skirted so far. Not all swing voters are likely to simply forget the dastardly communal conflagration. Many of his party colleagues have tried to speak in Modi’s defense, stating that he cannot be held responsible. But Modi needs to clarify his own stance and cannot afford to be wishy-washy.

India is an extremely complex democracy and if Modi expects that the UPA’s follies will result in a BJP triumph he is sadly mistaken. If he is to consolidate his position and attract more fence sitters, he needs to address the above issues.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist.