While Narendra Modi's diatribes at a
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) meeting - he compared the Congress
with termites - reflected the customary crudeness of his cyber
supporters, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's riposte in parliament
was reminiscent of his combative comments on the eve of the 2009
At that time, he had countered L.K. Advani's charge of being weak
by recalling how the BJP leader moped in a corner while his
riotous followers demolished an ancient mosque. This time, too,
Manmohan Singh taunted the BJP by predicting that the failure of
the party's "lauh purush" (iron man) to dislodge the Congress will
be repeated in 2014.
The prime minister's other jibe directed at Advani in 2009 was to
change his astrologers. Now, with just about a year to go before
the next big electoral test between the two major parties, those
who peer into the future will be hard put to find out which of the
two have an advantage.
Only one thing is clear. While the Congress has squandered the
lead provided by the 200-plus seats it won in the last election,
the BJP hasn't been able to step into the breach. One reason for
its failure is that it hasn't yet been able to fill the vacuum
created by Atal Behari Vajpayee's retirement.
Shortly after the 2009 defeat, Advani's willingness to be leader
of the opposition alerted the BJP to his desire to be a prime
ministerial candidate again. To abort this possibility, the party
kicked him upstairs by making him chairman of the party
parliamentary board and appointing Sushma Swaraj as leader of the
opposition in the Lok Sabha.
The belief at the time that the number of prime ministerial
aspirants had been brought down to two - Sushma Swaraj and Arun
Jaitley - was however negated by Modi's decision to throw his hat
into the ring.
Even if none of this is formally articulated by the BJP, the
suggestions of its partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)
provide enough indications about the prospects of the
For instance, while Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has
expressed his reservations about Modi obviously because the
latter's nomination will scare away large sections of the
minorities - Muslims and Christians - the Shiv Sena has voiced its
preference for Sushma Swaraj presumably because, as a party of
Maharashtrians, it will not like a Gujarati, viz. Modi, to be
It may be recalled that in the presidential election of 2007, the
Shiv Sena had voted for the Congress' Pratibha Patil, who is a
Maharashtrian, instead of the BJP's Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. This
time, too, the Sena - and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) - opted for
the Congress's Pranab Mukherjee. Evidently, when it comes to
making a major choice, the BJP's friends prefer to go their own
way on communal, personal (in the case of Mukherjee) and
For all the cheers that Modi receives, therefore, at the BJP's
conclaves, the chances of the party finally choosing him are not
too high since it will create unmanageable cracks in the NDA. The
Congress' none-too-subtle overtures to Nitish Kumar with
assurances of considering his demand for a special economic status
for Bihar are not without significance in this context.
But, it isn't only the BJP which is unable to decide on a prime
ministerial nominee. Although Rahul Gandhi's elevation to the post
of Congress vice president seemingly confirmed the belief that he
will be the candidate, the heir-apparent himself has been
His latest ruminations in parliament's central hall echo what he
said at the Congress' last Jaipur conclave about the party
functioning without rules and decisions being taken behind closed
doors. While emphasising his bottom-up idea of empowerment
although he himself has parachuted down from above, Rahul has
however clarified that since he is "not in politics for the sake
of power", becoming prime minister "is not a priority" for him.
It is not clear whether he is serious. Or whether there is a game
plan behind his renunciation like his mother's in 2004 when she
chose Manmohan Singh for the post after refusing to accept it
There is little doubt, of course, that the Congress will follow
whatever path is laid down for it by the dynasty. It is possible
that Manmohan Singh will be named again on the eve of the polls.
Or the matter will be kept open for the newly elected MPs. Or
Rahul himself will decide to take the plunge.
For the Congress, much will depend on how the economy fares. An
upturn will probably see Manmohan Singh for another two years. A
downturn may induce the party to play the Rahul card.
For the BJP, there are two worse case scenarios. One is that
Modi's selection will make the NDA fall apart, and the other is
that Modi's rejection will turn the Gujarat strong man into a
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at email@example.com