Modi Promotion Within BJP Exposes Party Rift Ahead of India Poll

Attempts by India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party to show a united front over its decision to pick Narendra Modi as head of the group’s election campaign were derailed as a senior leader quit his posts in protest.

Modi, 62 and the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, was appointed the BJP’s election panel chief “keeping in mind the challenge of the 2014 elections and to achieve victory in the polls,” party President Rajnath Singh said yesterday at the end of a national executive meeting in Goa. Lal Krishna Advani, 85, who cited ill health as he failed to attend the conclave, today resigned from three key party positions.

While not directly mentioning the rise of Modi as the trigger for his stepping down, Advani in a letter to Singh said he no longer agreed with the direction of the party which he said had become a vehicle for personal agendas. Singh put Modi on the party’s highest decision-making body in March after his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat had made him a favorite among BJP workers.

“It’s a minor jolt to the BJP,” said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi. “Advani has lost his grip over the party. The cadres will follow the diktat of the present leadership and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” he said, referring to a right-wing Hindu group that underpins the BJP.

Advani’s revivalist movement for the construction of a temple on the site of an ancient mosque where the BJP believes the Hindu god Ram was born helped propel the party’s rise. From having just two lawmakers in parliament in 1984, the BJP ruled the world’s second-most populated nation from 1998 to 2004.

Election Showdown

Advani was home minister and deputy prime minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. Ahead of the 2009 elections, the BJP projected Advani as its pick for premier. When questioned about his political ambitions in recent months, Advani has refused to rule himself out as a contender for the country’s top government office.

“The way Modi is being elevated and party cadres are rallying around him, it is now clear that Modi will be the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies before today’s announcement by Advani. “Still, he needs to keep leaders of his party and allies together.”

The decision sets up Modi for an electoral showdown with Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who will lead the Indian National Congress into the elections, due by May 2014. Gandhi, 42 and son of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was appointed as his party’s vice president in January. Neither party has yet to formally select its prime ministerial candidate.

Corruption Scandals

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term from 2009 has been marred by corruption scandals, including over awards of mobile-phone licenses in 2008 and coal assets that have triggered street protests. Gridlock in parliament as opposition parties led attacks on the government have stalled policies to further open Asia’s third-largest economy to foreign investment amid the slowest growth in a decade.

In contrast, Modi’s government in Gujarat has been hailed by investors including Tata Group’s former chairman Ratan Tata, and billionaire Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd. Gujarat’s economy has grown an annual 10.2 percent on average over the last decade compared with 7.8 percent for the national economy. Under Modi, Gujarat has raised power generation capacity more than fivefold, while his government says it is the only state in India to have surplus electricity. Its success in improving health and education indicators has lagged behind other states.

Modi Aide Jailed

About 56 percent of city-dwelling Indians are against the Congress-led coalition getting another chance in power, CNN-IBN television channel reported last month, citing its survey in age group of 18 years or more. While 38 percent want Modi as the country’s next prime minister, only 14 percent favor Rahul Gandhi, according to the poll.

Some of the BJP’s allies are also opposed to Modi being the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The leaders of the socialist Janata Dal (United), including Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, have expressed concern that the nomination of Modi may anger Muslims who accuse him of failing to stop riots that targeted their community in 2002. More than 1,000 people died in the violence, most of them Muslims.

The carnage, which left Modi barred from the U.S. and some European nations, followed the killing of Hindu activists in a train fire, a blaze for which Muslims were later found guilty.

Maya Kodnani, a former Modi aide, was jailed in August for her role in the murder of 97 people in a suburb of Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Gujarat.

The appointment of Modi will “further divide” the BJP, said B.G. Verghese, an analyst with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. It would also “weaken” the National Democratic Alliance, the opposition grouping, as leaders like Kumar are opposed to Modi’s prime ministerial candidature, he said.