The election mood has set in early and could probably be traced to December 20, 2012 when Narendra Modi won a third successive term as Chief Minister of Gujarat and addressed the jubilant crowd in Hindi and not in Gujarati.
Rising almost equally rapidly in the popularity charts is Congress finance minister, P Chidambaram who in eight months after taking charge has restored the confidence of foreign investors, rating agencies and managed to limit fiscal deficit at levels that few thought was possible.
So, will it be a Modi versus Chidambaram contest for the top job of India’s PM? Kumar Ketkar of Dainik Divya Marathi, Dipankar Gupta, former professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Rajdeep Sardesai, managing editor, CNN-IBN discuss and concur that the ability to build consensus and project a focus on growth is what will ensure electoral victory and not just sheer charisma.
Below is an edited transcript of the show on CNBC-TV18
Q: A CNBC-TV18 poll indicates that a majority expect NDA government headed by Narendra Modi to come to power Do you think Modi’s chances are as high as that?
Sardesai: The chorus is certainly there within the BJP and the BJP’s supporters, there is no doubt about that. But the reality of Indian politics is much more complex than the euphoria on Dalal Street, in the media or at the BJP’s national council. Indian polity is much more fragmented than ever before and this makes it very difficult for any party or a coalition to reach the magic 272-mark. In that situation anyone who wants to be Prime Minister will have to be seen as a builder of consensus and coalition.
So can Narendra Modi, who has polarised Indian polity and for all his advantages of ability for charisma and personality, be a coalition or consensus builder? The jury is still out on that. Nitish Kumar had made it clear he will not accept Narendra Modi as a prime-ministerial candidate and I do not see any of the state leaders with strong Muslim population such as Mamata Banrjee in Bengal, Mulayam Singh or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh accepting Narendra Modi as a prime-ministerial candidate.
Q: Are Modi’s chances are as bright as 50 percent to be the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate?
Ketkar: To be honest, I do not think the possibility of Modi as PM exists at all. However, the campaign will continue. I do not think Modi has pan India image. There are leaders in states who are equal like Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, the Akali Dal in Punjab or Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. I do not think equals will choose one of their members as the PM.
I do not think Narendra Modi has a pan-India image and hence Indian plurality will defeat Narendra Modi. Gujarat Asmita will have to compete with many other Asmitas, many other identities and Narendra Modi will be sidelined as the election results start coming in..
Q: But there were governments headed by Deve Gowda and Indra Kumar Gujral both who were not pan-Indian leaders…
Ketkar: That is why the governments did not last. The moment the BJP starts projecting Modi, the NDA will fall apart. The NDA cannot accept Modi’s diktat neither will, ever for the sake of argument if the RSS has accepted him, I do not think the BJP will accept him.
There are four colours within BJP- former members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), former members of Jan Sangh, followed by members of the BJP and lastly, the the supporters of the BJP who constitute the NDA. And these four sub-groups do not always agree and that is why there is a constant conflict with the saffron fold. So Modi will be dumped by the BJP and replaced by somebody else who is acceptable to all.
Q: Is it entirely impossible for a person who has so much identified himself against a community to make it to the top irrespective of impressive administrative performance?
Gupta: There are certain aspects against Modi especially the baggage related to the after the Godhra riots that he will find it difficult to shake off. However, urban India has begun to tilt in his favour with many who had not earlier voted for BJP starting to think positively about the BJP and Modi as a viable Prime Minister.
But it is important to remember that in a parliamentary system, coalition politics is a reality. In other words, a pan Indian leader should not be controversial and have a neutered image. Much of what we hear about Modi, apart from Dalal Street and the business community, is from Delhi and Ahmadabad. I am not very sure if Modi is known in other parts of India. In states like Assam, Bihar or Madhya Pradesh, people have things on their minds other than Modi whose traction in the business world is derived from the praise delivered by 8-10 top businessmen who were looked after rather well.
However, with society playing a more decisive role in politics than the market, parties can ill-afford a prime-ministerial candidate who is charismatic and overbearing.
Q: Is coalition politics likely to be the trend hereafter?
Sardesai: At the end of the day, it all depends on the numbers. If both the national parties end up with less than 150 seats each, then they will find it difficult to impose their writ on allies. But if either of these national parties ends with more than 150 seats, there is a fair chance that whoever becomes Prime Minister will come from the major national parties.
The question today is whether the BJP particularly wants to risk Modi as its prime-ministerial candidate in the belief of winning over the urban middleclass vote that would ensure 20-30 extra seats or do they want to go down the NDA road and rely on smaller regional parties and thereby project someone who is seen as a much more consensual low-key kind of candidate?
It is a dilemma and I think both national parties are conscious of not acceding their prime-ministerial ambitions to the leader of a third party.
Q: Is it likely that Chidambaram would be chosen for the top spot if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were to get the electoral numbers?
Ketkar: Since we are merely speculating, that is distinctly possible. Ever since the London economy projected him as a prime-ministerial candidate, the buzz has been around. But the question is not whether the Congress or the BJP will choose, what is important is a candidate who will be acceptable..
Q: Do you think, as the business community desires, Chidambaram stands a very good chance at the top job?
Sardesai: What worries me at the moment is what the Congress plans to do with Rahul Gandhi.
Q: But he has declared his intent...
Sardesai: That is the worry. Rahul Gandhi it seems wants to outsource the prime ministership much as his mother outsourced it to Manmohan Singh. That is where Chidambaram comes in. The question is what kind of a leader does Rahul Gandhi want to outsource the prime ministership to?
It is very clear that the Gandhi family wants someone who is a family loyalist with no mass following to threaten them and who can manage the economy reasonably well. Rahul much more conscious of Chidambaram’s credentials to push ahead with growth than his mother is. But Chidambaram has blotted his stint as home minister with the blunder on Telangana and being attacked by the Opposition on his alleged role in the 2G scam.
So Chidambaram is much more a contentious and polarising candidate within the Congress- an image that he wishes to replace by trying his best to emerge as a coalition builder as indicated by a distinct change in his approach and attitude in the last six months.
But is he the ideal candidate whom the Gandhi family would like to outsource the prime ministership to? The problem for the Congress is it does not have too many alternatives. AK Antony as defence minister has raised huge question marks over his efficiency quotient and Sushilkumar Shinde as home minister is a near-disaster. In such as backdrop, Chidambaram emerges as the most efficient administrator that the Congress has to date. The irony is that the BJP is looking for a Vajpayee-like figure and the Congress is looking for a Manmohan Singh-like figure.
Q: Does Chidambaram seem to equal Modi in terms of efficiency?
Sardesai: Chidambaram still has to win over allies. Will the Left support someone like Chidambaram? Chidambaram has had difficulties with the AIADMK and the DMK. Both Chidambaram and Modi will have to reinvent themselves for a coalition era. That is the challenge for anyone today who wants to be the Prime Minister of India.
Q: The country is not quite out of the woods as far as growth is concerned and it is quite possible that in February or March 2014, the rupee becomes very vulnerable and the situation calls for a veteran to help the country tide over the crisis. Does this possibility allow Chidambaram a very good shot for the top job?
Gupta: If things get out of hand on the economic front, I am afraid Chidambaram’s chances will plummet. One of the reasons why Manmohan Singh was such a success was primarily because of what happened in 1991 and that carried on for the next ten years or so and he became the Prime Minister candidate to everyone’s joy.
Now, Chidambaram has to do something spectacular, which he has not done so far. But, if the economy holds starts getting better, then Chidambaram’s chances might improve.
At the same time, both Chidambaram and Modi have to help the public forget their past and that is going to be somewhat difficult.
However, I do not think one should not write-off someone like Meira Kumar who has a public profile to a certain degree and might well be chosen. She is not the most attractive candidate, but the least offensive. In that context, maybe both Chidambaram and Modi may not be the best choice.
Q: If the clamour for Modi gets louder, will the UPA and the Congress in particular not go berserk with populist policies, but play the efficiency card as the elections near?
Desai: I think that has already started. The UPA has now suddenly become conscious, though some would say it is much too late, that it has to show results. One of the reasons why Modi has stuck a cord with the urban middle-class is because he has been able to at least give the impression that he has delivered in Gujarat, though the jury maybe out as to the extent of the delivery. But it is clear that Narendra Modi has made good governance his mantra.
On the other hand, the UPA is so entangled in coalition compulsions that it forgotten that the basic task of running the government is to govern the country. It will be imperative that for anyone who wants to be Prime Minster in the next twelve months to project himself as someone who is committed to good governance. For that, the UPA will need to put the economy on a growth track and more importantly, focus on building alliances.
Whether we like it or not, the elections in this country are about arithmetic rather than chemistry. The chemistry in the BJP maybe with Modi, the fact is the arithmetic at the moment in the country is with anyone who can become the best consensus-builder.