New Delhi: The controversial BJP decision to elevate hardliner Narendra Modi to run the party's campaign in 2014 elections and ruthlessly sideline a leader such as L.K. Advani is bound to damage its image, but let us not forget that it is a decisive victory for the RSS, which forced BJP President Rajnath Singh, from behind the scenes, to go ahead with the drastic step.
Hardline groups such as RSS, Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been waiting in the wings for decades to somehow harden the BJP's Hindu nationalist image by encouraging leaders like Modi to lead the party campaigns and also the party.
Surprisingly, some BJP leaders and most of the Indian media are describing it as a personal feud between a senior and a junior leader of the party. But apparently it is more than that. Advani realizes that Modi is perceived as a divisive and controversial force that can damage the party's chances of heading a coalition in 2014. Who can deny that Advani is the same leader who in the past did step aside when he realized that Atal Behari Vajpayee would prove to be a better prime minister for the party than him.
Anyhow, the appointment of Modi as the chairman of the BJP's 2014 Election Management Committee has set the stage for next year's Lok Sabha elections, which now will be a contest between Modi on one side and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on the other. So the fight will now be between the two parivars - the Sangh Parivar and the Gandhi Parivar.
It is very convenient for the Sangh Parivar to say that the ongoing feud is nothing more than a manifestation of the internal democracy of the party. But the fact remains that the old guard has openly expressed its concern that elevating a known Hindu hardliner as the top national leader in the party could be a big gamble in today's India. The simple reason is that the number of hardline Hindu voters in India is much less than the total number of liberal Hindus and minorities combined.
Modi sees his leadership as the best bet for the BJP in 2014 polls. He cites his three consecutive victories in the Gujarat elections, his rapport with India's top industrialists and the economic development he has achieved in Gujarat as his top qualities to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate. Although his personality is not charismatic, his ability to rebutting the Congress party slogans is great and his criticism of some of the present government policies is valid. But the problem is he also carries the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots and an almost visceral hate for Muslims.
There was a time in 2004 when the most accepted BJP leader and then prime minister Vajpayee also distanced himself from Modi. He had asked Modi not to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat violence and had pushed for his resignation as chief minister. And when the BJP lost the elections, Vajpayee held the violence in Gujarat as one of the main reasons and acknowledged that not removing Modi immediately after the Gujarat violence was a mistake. Modi, instead had tried to equate the Gujarat violence with the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and responded to a newspaper's criticism that compared him to Hitler by saying: "I have not read and I would not like to read (the criticism)."
Perception matters a lot in politics. And when one talks to Indian voters and watches the TV talk shows about Indian politics, Modi's image comes across as a dictatorial leader who has never felt any need to express any regrets about the 2002 riots, who is ruthlessly in a hurry to rule India and who doesn't care about the country's minorities and feels that his party can win the elections with the support of just the Hindu majority of the country.
Modi, according to some experts, comes across as a crude politician who does not have any political "sanskars" and does not have an open mind and the charisma for running a country like India. The way Modi sent his supporters to demonstrate outside Advani's home in Delhi; the way he treated a whistle blower (senior IPS officer Kuldip Sharma) who exposed some of his controversial actions, and the way he allegedly shunned his wife are some clear indications that he can use any means to achieve what he thinks is right. Deep down he is an authoritarian man ill at ease with dissent. Even his wife has alleged that she is afraid of losing her job and livelihood if she says something against her politically powerful husband.
The bottom line is that Modi is now set to face Rahul Gandhi, who, in a total contrast to Modi's "clamouring approach" for the prime ministerial post, is using the "renunciation approach" with a touch of magnanimity. Rahul Gandhi has said he is in no hurry to become the prime minister because at first he wants to work for the unity of his party.
But Rahul Gandhi also has a perception problem. He comes across as a young man who has no experience at all of holding any position in the government or otherwise. His critics say he is surrounded by the most ineffective cronies led by a very insecure adviser like Kanishka Singh, who for his own job security has been limiting Rahul Gandhi's exposure. The critics also say if he becomes the prime minister, it will not be because of his ability but because he is a member of the Gandhi dynasty.
But it is also clear that Rahul Gandhi's 'sanskars' are solid. When he says becoming the prime minister is not his top priority, he means it. He did not say he does not want to become the prime minister, but only that it is not his top priority and that the party comes first.
Rahul has perhaps inherited this quality from his mother. For years after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, Sonia Gandhi kept on rejecting the party leadership until one day all senior politicians, who were fighting over it, forced her to become the Congress chief.
So at a time when cracks are appearing in the BJP's unity, Rahul Gandhi comes across as a Congress leader who is trying to unite his Congress party by making it more democratic and giving more power to the middle ranks.
The young Congress vice-president, it seems, is following his father's footsteps. But, unlike his father, he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to implement the changes overnight. Rahul Gandhi, with his hard work and interaction with the grassroots for the past nine years, probably realizes, more than his father did, how murky and ruthless Indian politics can be. And perhaps he also realizes that once he is able to democratize the party and empower the neglected ranks in the Congress, he will automatically become their natural choice for leading them in parliament.
Whatever the results, one thing is certain that next year's Lok Sabha elections are bound to have far reaching repercussions for Indian politics. Also, the RSS victory in forcing the BJP to sideline the more acceptable moderate leaders and elevate a Hindu hardliner for the 2014 polls can prove to be a tipping point for the world's largest democracy.
(Ravi M. Khanna has covered the South Asian political scene for Voice of America from Washington and New Delhi for more than 24 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)