The other big news is Amit Shah choosing to contest from Gandhinagar, the constituency of party patriarch L.K. Advani.
The BJP’s first list of 187 candidates for the April-May Lok Sabha polls, which was released on Holi day after a three-day deliberation of the party’s central election committee, was preceded and followed by feverish speculation in the media about the putative grandmasters of political chess — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. Unlike in the case of the Congress, where unseemly lobbying and jockeying is the order of the day before candidates are chosen, the BJP top brass gives the impression of a disciplined war room parley where the top “generals” look over the maps on the table and on the walls as they decide on the moves. There is no hint of people lobbying for tickets in this regimented party.
The first list came at the end of marathon deliberations spread over three days. An image has been created that the BJP’s Modi-Shah duo has evolved a mathematical system for choosing candidates, with a zero margin of error.
There were not too many surprises though many questions as the prominent leaders found their positions as candidates in the list, with Prime Minister Modi’s name heading it as the candidate from Varanasi, the high seat of Hindu religiosity, for a second time. There is the clear implication that he has firmly turned his back on his home state of Gujarat.
What should have been a break from the tradition of most Prime Ministers coming from the backward state of Uttar Pradesh has only been reinforced and cemented by Mr Modi’s decision to make Varanasi his political home.
The Prime Minister had not uttered the word “Hindutva”, the political creed of the right-wing party that is firmly in the saddle of political power, in his 2013-2014 campaign nor during his five-year tenure in office, but by choosing Varanasi he has said it all. The Hindutva resonance of Varanasi is unmistakable.
It is indeed curious that it is not Faizabad, near Ayodhya! It would have been much better if Mr Modi had been the Prime Minister from Gujarat, but the charismatic leader seems to have sensed that there is no escaping the political compulsions of the Hindi heartland. It was the clean sweep of the UP Lok Sabha seats in 2014, winning 73 of 80, that poll-vaulted the party into the comfortable position of commanding a simple majority all on its own, the first time since 1984, though that number got reduced to 268 when the House was dissolved, and to 68 from Uttar Pradesh. The presence of Mr Modi as a candidate in Varanasi is expected to serve as a lightning rod in the elections as it did five years ago.
The other big news is Amit Shah choosing to contest from Gandhinagar, the constituency of party patriarch L.K. Advani. It is redundant to talk about the snubbing of Mr Advani, the architect of the party’s Hindutva politics centred around the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. But Mr Advani never ventured to contest from Uttar Pradesh, much less from Varanasi, any time. The question is why does Mr Shah want to contest the Lok Sabha polls when he is already a member of the Rajya Sabha? Is it the case that after his extended term as party president ends after the elections, he will be inducted into the government if the party were to win a second term? And does it mean, that as a gesture of deference, Mr Advani would be asked to go to the Upper House.
Textiles minister Smriti Irani being fielded once against Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi is a kind of political sledging, where the “first family” of the Congress is being warned that it cannot take its position for granted, and that the party is only too keen to oust the Nehru-Gandhis from their pocket boroughs. Of course, Ms Irani fights from the comfortable position of continuing to be a member of the Rajya Sabha. If she loses in Amethi a second time, she does not stand to lose much. The intention is to put the fear of God into the heart of Mr Gandhi. Pitting Ms Irani against Mr Gandhi is like placing a player in football to shadow the star on the other side. It is a tactical move. There is also the unstated belief in the mind of the Modi-Shah duo that victory over the Congress is not complete until a BJP candidate defeats a member of the “first family”, and that too the Congress president.
The BJP cannot be faulted for its war strategy. It is what is expected of a political party which desires the dominant position and political legitimacy in the country, once enjoyed by the Congress. The irony lies in the fact that the Congress has ceased to be a dominant party for over a quarter century, and its political legitimacy is really in tatters. The BJP is the dominant party on the Indian political stage, and there cannot be a greater ratification than that.
The fact that BJP is not satisfied until it defeats the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis in the poll battle only shows the grudging respect that the right-wing party has towards the country’s Grand Old Party and its family at the helm. Mr Modi understands the power of symbols more than anyone else, and he wants to score the ultimate symbolic victory over the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis.
Beyond potent symbolism, the party knows the political grind of choosing candidates from the 430 Lok Sabha seats it intends to fight. That is why many of the defectors from other political parties with uncertain ideological credentials have been chosen as candidates because that ultimate common denominator, the winnability factor, is the inescapable determinant. It would be unrealistic to expect that Mr Modi and Mr Shah have played all their cards well in choosing the candidates.
Once in the poll fray, it is not the BJP’s best-laid plans that will decide the outcome. It is the people, the true masters in a democracy, who have a say in the matter. And the BJP believes that it is Mr Modi who has to play the role of the helmsman in leading the party to victory. At the same time, the party is constrained to choose the best candidates it can.