India’s Conservative Leader Modi Outmaneuvers Rival

The likely prime ministerial candidate strengthens his position in the Bharatiya Janata Party.

After a disastrous election defeat and a stint as absentee leader of the opposition, Lal Krishna Advani finally resigned from India’s opposition conservative party on Monday at the culmination of its national conference held in Goa. That conference was meant to sew up the final minutiae of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral strategy for next year’s general election. The Indian press labeled the resignation as some kind of major churning being set in motion.

Ostensibly this churn is a result of the meteoric rise of Narendra Modi, the supposedly divisive chief minister of Gujarat state. Advani, as the story goes, believed Modi’s divisiveness to be detrimental to the party’s electoral prospects. The reality is that Advani, like most Indian politicians, used identity politics to further his own career. This had little to do with inclusiveness and everything to do with an internal power struggle.

What happened at the BJP conference in Goa was simply a reflection of ground reality. For too long, the BJP’s leadership has been far removed from dissatisfaction in its lower ranks that came from two successive election defeats. Each of these defeats resulted in selective demotions of people not in the Advani faction of the party. For example, despite being the prime ministerial candidate in 2009 and suffering a crushing defeat, Advani continued to wield power within the party through his protégés. These protégés were Arun Jaitley, who became leader of the opposition in the upper house, and Sushma Swaraj, who became leader of the opposition in the lower house.

That Arun Jaitly had managed the failed 2009 campaign was glossed over, as was the fact that Sushma Swaraj lost to chief ministership of Delhi so badly in 1998 that the right hasn’t been able to stage a comeback there in fifteen years.

The writing on the wall was clear enough for the BJP rank and file. Losers cannot win elections. For a long time the BJP’s adherence to supposedly Hindu principles of respecting elders and not questioning the hierarchy held but at some point pragmatism had to take over. Since the lost 2009 election, a slow but perceptible shift away from the Advani faction has taken place. At the time, Jaitley and Swaraj curiously hid behind Modi’s rising star to avoid censure. While formally acting as Modi’s champions, though, they were in fact persistently undermining his chances from within.

The second source of opposition to Modi came from within the BJP’s second rung of leadership, known as the “lost generation.” The first generation were the grand old men: Advani himself, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former party leader Murli Manohar Joshi. All of them had their chance of winning the prime ministership. Only Vajpayee made it.

The second rung comprises the likes of former foreign and finance minister Yashwant Sinha — who, like Advani, refused to attend the Goa conference and accept the new power alignment. The assumption was that owing to his precocious talent and education he would be the obvious heir apparent. This was not to be.

The third-generation leadership is centered around Modi, assisted, sincerely this time, by Jaitley and Swaraj who worked hard to ensure that succession would skip a generation. They hoped to subsequently edge Modi out.

Modi, as it turned out, would not let himself be outmaneuvered. While he wasn’t officially nominated for the premiership, he will lead the BJP into next year’s election. The party will therefore likely focus on development and have a very right-wing approach to economic policy. It will try to steer clear of social issues, knowing that Modi’s reputation can only bring negatives to the table — even if minorities in Gujarat are better off than anywhere else in the country.

So Modi has won even if he didn’t get it all. What’s next?

It is doubtful that Modi will have the internal administrative powers to overhaul the BJP’s hopelessly divided rank and file. In all probability, it will cruise to another election defeat given that the Congress is relying once again on true and tested preelection populism that has proven so detrimental to India’s economy in the past. The danger for Modi is that while he is now the face of the party, he isn’t formally its lead candidate. He might be scapegoated for defeat but not benefit from any gains.

Secondly, the final battle for the BJP has just begun and will be played out in earnest following the 2014 elections. Modi has proven time and again that he wants power, not the trappings of it. Until he gets what he wants, the BJP will likely remain in flux.