BJP unites behind divisive Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi’s elevation as opposition chief for India’s elections sets up a contest between a Hindu nationalist who must shed the taint of religious riots and the reluctant prince of the Gandhi dynasty.
Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state known popularly as “NaMo,” was named election committee chairman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Sunday ahead of polls scheduled for the first half of 2014.
The choice marked a new era for the leadership of the BJP, which came of age in the 1990s, and lays the stage for what is expected to be a bitter and intensely personal rivalry. Rahul Gandhi, 20 years younger than Modi at 42 and with a vastly different background and personality, will be the BJP man’s opposite number as election coordinator for the ruling Congress party. While neither man is guaranteed to become prime minister even if their party wins the right to form the next coalition, they will front the campaigning in the world’s biggest democracy.
“Our aim should be a Congress-free India,” Modi told cheering supporters after his appointment. “If we can free this country of the Congress, all our problems will be solved.” Beneath the display of unity at the BJP meeting in Goa, Modi’s elevation has divided his party and coalition allies, an effect likely to be repeated on the electorate.
BJP patriarch L.K. Advani, who built the party into the only national opposition to Congress, snubbed the conclave and then issued a shock resignation letter yesterday.
“Most BJP leaders are concerned just with their personal agendas,” Advani wrote in the letter in an apparent reference to his one-time protegee. The Indian Express noted yesterday how “the BJP has pledged to unite behind its most divisive leader” in an editorial that analysed the “spectacular” rise of the son of a tea-stall owner.
Modi’s immediate challenge will be to avoid a messy internal power struggle and keep his party together. He must then persuade voters he is fit to lead a secular nation which was born amid religious violence. Modi remains tarnished by 2002 riots in Gujarat in which as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in an orgy of killing shortly after he came to power in the state. While he has never been convicted of any offence, one of his former ministers was jailed last year for directing some of the violence and India’s top court once compared him to Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned. Boycotted for a more than a decade by European powers, he was denied a US visa in 2005 because of “severe violations of religious freedom” in Gujarat, and has not visited since.
India’s 177-million-strong Muslim population remains fearful and overwhelmingly opposed to him.