There is something particularly intriguing about the drama surrounding Narendra Modi’s intense tussle with Sanjay Joshi which has culminated in the latter’s resignation from the BJP. The cloak-and-dagger atmospherics of the battle between the charismatic chief minister and the relatively faceless RSS man has been a local sideshow within the BJP for years but its public denouement now, complete with mysterious anti-Modi billboards appearing in Ahmedabad and Rajkot, has taken up so much national mind-space because it serves as a cipher to understand the wider organisational battles going on within the BJP as it prepares for the 2014 general election.
Personality clashes and infighting are not unusual in any political party but over time this particular saga has taken on the dimensions of a political pot-boiler with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel. It has assumed a larger dimension because it embodies some of the deeper tensions within the party about the inexorable rise of Narendra Modi as its first among equals. This is happening at particularly critical moment within the BJP when it is trying to get its house in order for 2014 and simultaneously coming to terms with a delicate internal power-shift between its national apparatus and its regional satraps.
The party may deny it but some of this ferment has already been reflected in contradictory articles published in the two RSS publications, thePanchjanya and the Organiser, as well as some critical commentary in the BJP’s Kamal Sandesh.
Unlike Mr Modi’s detractors outside the BJP who constantly point to 2002, the internal debate in the BJP is less about questions of ideology and more about his particular brand of muscular leadership that seems to brook little dissent. Mr Modi missed the party’s last national executive meeting in Delhi, chose not to campaign in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election and made it to the party’s most recent national executive meeting in Mumbai only after his bête noire had resigned. Both Mr Modi’s supporters and detractors agree on one thing: his decisiveness, his penchant to do things his own way and his ability to finish things.
Ironically, it is precisely this perception that works as his greatest strength with corporate India, but equally also discomfits fellow party travellers, especially those on his wrong side.
It is still a little premature to talk of 2014 and Mr Modi still has to win the upcoming Gujarat assembly election but his political positioning seems to be firming up. At a time when the UPA is paralysed with indecision and economic growth has dipped to its lowest in years, the yearning for a strong leader who can cut through the logjam can be appealing. The leading lights of corporate India have been cheerleading Mr Modi’s candidature for years and the perception of a returning socialist-raj mindset in Delhi will only strengthen the desire for a strong and a business-friendly leader.
There is a reason why Mr Modi, not a politician who normally gives one-to-one interviews, has been talking strategically on larger national issues in recent days, and emphasising his pro-business credentials. From the Brookings Institution to brokerage firms such as CLSA, and the recent flurry of positive foreign press coverage in leading international media publications, Mr Modi’s image-projection is increasingly becoming popular for those worried about the downturn in Indian economic story.
Troubling questions from the past still hang in the air but the reinvention of Narendra Modi from Hindu ‘hridya samarat’ to the new developmental saviour is a political story that is ripening in its telling and may never find a better moment. The 2002 cases will probably take years to go through the courts but the issue there has always been one of political perception and two big questions remain: the acceptability of Mr Modi to the BJP’s alliance partners such as Nitish Kumar and indeed his wider electoral appeal outside of Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra.
There are no clear answers but this is why Mr Modi’s journey will be a fascinating one to watch, with implications not only for the future of the BJP but about deeper questions about the future trajectory of India itself.