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Modi, Advani split opens door for Congress

BJP leadership row threatens to make 2014 polls a one-horse race

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • June 12, 2013
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India’s Congress party and its United Progressive Alliance coalition, which has ruled India for the past nine years, can perhaps breathe easy.

Despite being on the verge of collapse under the weight of a series of corruption scandals involving half a dozen ministers; a melting economy reeling from low industrial production and high inflation; and the collapse of some of its major policy initiatives, Congress has reason to be confident about winning a third term in elections due next year.

Its main challenger, the right wing Bharatiya Janata party and its delicately woven National Democratic Alliance (NDA) suddenly find itself on the verge of an ideological split.  

It stems from a dispute between two leaders who have, in their own way, shaped its policies and inspired its cadres in the years since it lost national elections in 2004 after six years of government under former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. 

The dispute between the highly divisive Narendra Modi -- three-time chief minister of Gujarat state and a self-styled prime ministerial candidate for 2014 -- and Lal Krishna Advani has been brewing for months, but erupted with volcanic force this week, throwing the party and its middle class and corporate supporters into a tizzy.

The highly ambitious Modi was hoping he would be declared the BJP nominee for prime minister, but was instead elected chairman of the less glamorous election campaign committee last week at the party’s Goa conclave.

He now finds that even this transient glory has been sabotaged by his bête noire Advani who astonished the leadership by angrily resigning from three apex party councils of which he was the senior member. Advani said he was unhappy with the direction the party was taking.

Advani, a former deputy prime minister, is a co founder of the modern BJP with Vajpayee following the collapse of the Janata Party in 1979.

With the moderate Vajpayee as a nationally acceptable face, Advani quietly set about recapturing Hindu support across the country in a national rath yatra journey. The journey was a bloody one, with numerous anti-Muslim riots marking its course across India, culminating in the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya on Dec 2, 2012. That cataclysmic event marks the beginning of Islamic fundamentalist violence in India, leading to many acts of terrorism, and in turn unleashing police barbarity and the persecution of innocents.

Advani’s attempts to reincarnate himself as a more moderate politician, with a visit to Pakistan and more temperate rhetoric, has disturbed the party’s main ideological patron.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s political vision for India is as the world’s only hard core Hindu nation with only a marginal role for religious minorities.

Their candidate to challenge Advani was their card-holding activist Narendra Modi. He was handpicked to be chief minister of Gujarat and successfully used this position as a springboard for a tilt at the top job. 

Modi successfully wooed the emerging and ambitious middle class and the corporate sector with tax incentives and crushing the organized industrial labor movement and “teaching Muslims a lesson” by allegedly unleashing a bloodbath in 2002. 

But Modi’s ambitions and his ruthlessness have made him a divisive personality, with the BJP’s NDA allies making it clear that they will go their separate ways if he is chosen as the coalition’s leader.

The real struggle in the party, and in fact the nation, is between the forces that see India as a monolithic cultural bloc with the supremacy of the Hindu faith and the leadership in the hands of a stentorian ideological ruling core, and groups that recognize the need for a temperate political doctrine that nurtures the country’s complex ethnic, social and religious fabric in a modern idiom.

Modi scares this group. Moderates within the BJP understand that with Modi as their prime ministerial candidate, the party will never get the broad support it needs to win power. In fact, it may also mean the end of the NDA, as we know it.

For them, his ambitions have to be nipped in the bud, even at the cost of a temporary internal rupture.

For the Congress Party, it seems a win-win situation. The spotlight is no longer on its corruption or other failures. And the divisions in the BJP can only dilute the challenge further. The ruling coalition now has to determine how it can capitalize more on its rival’s discomfiture.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council. 

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