Can Narendra Modi turn the tide in Uttar Pradesh?

Narendra Modi Image copyright AP

Controversial politician Narendra Modi was recently chosen to lead India's main opposition party's campaign for next year's elections and is tipped as a possible candidate for prime minister. Former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully says winning the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh will be central to his ambition.

While all the excitement in Goa last weekend was going on over the elevation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to the chair of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election campaign committee, it was politics as usual in the cramped, chaotic, towns of the populous, northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The potholed roads of the towns choke with every form of traffic known to man, from the humble donkey to overloaded lorries and jeeps with passengers hanging on for dear life. The buildings are constructed without any evidence of town planning. And there are complaints about the lack of electricity and almost all civic services.

All this might lead one to believe that local people are eagerly following the career of a potential prime minister with a reputation for running an orderly state and bringing ordered development to his state.

But no.

After a day's exhausting campaigning in those towns, one of the state's most experienced politicians, the former MP Afzal Ansari, said to me: "Politics in Uttar Pradesh is still all about caste."

Winning Uttar Pradesh

In the dusty, litter-strewn village of Jakroli in eastern part of the state, for instance, I was told the current political issue was still a dispute between the Dalits [formerly untouchables] and the other so-called "backward" castes over the former's demand to erect a statue of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar.

Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state and it sends 80, the largest number of MPs, to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the parliament).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gujarat is one of India's most developed states

It is in Uttar Pradesh that Mr Modi has to turn the tide if the BJP is to come near 180 seats - the minimum number generally thought to be necessary if the BJP is to have any chance of forming a government.

In no other state does the BJP have the chance of making the number of gains it has here.

At present, the tide is flowing strongly against the BJP.

In the last general election, the party only won a miserable 10 seats in the state and saw its share of the vote shrink by 4.7%. The result of the subsequent state assembly election wasn't any more encouraging for the BJP.

The only way Mr Modi can turn the tide is by persuading the voters that national issues should override local issues in a national general election.

Psephologists point to two problems he has to overcome.

First, general elections in India have become, for the most part, a series of state elections. One psephologist has said that India's elections are "the least national in character compared with most countries in the world".

The second psephological problem for Mr Modi is the BJP's poor record on converting votes into seats, what is known as the "seat-vote" multiplier. The number of seats the BJP has won for each per cent of the national vote it has won has been declining ever since the high in 1999. The obvious way to improve this multiplier is once again to get the voters to concentrate on national issues.

'Development man'

Mr Modi has already shown that he realises he must convince the electorate that general elections are about national issues, and that the national leader is able to make a difference to their lives.

This is why he is presenting himself as "vikas purush" (development man) and selling himself on his reputation for having brought development to Gujarat.

Knowing that the last two general elections have shown there is still a tendency in India to see the Congress as the natural party of power in Delhi, Mr Modi has also set out to undermine that impression.

Image caption Uttar Pradesh sends the largest number of MPs, 80, to the parliament

Talking of making India "Congress-free", he has not only been stressing the misdeeds and misfortunes of the present Congress government, in particular the scandals and the impression that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is paralysed by indecision, but also sniping at the party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi.

But this is where Mr Modi finds himself walking a tightrope.

He knows very well that the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS [the Hindu organisation from which the BJP draws its ideological roots], whose support proved so vital in his winning the chairmanship of the election campaign committee - the first stage of his battle to become prime minister - are not entirely happy with him.

They have felt for some time that the Gujarat BJP had become a one-man band, and that he did not listen to them, although it was the RSS that brought him into politics.

A senior RSS member recently told me that it was the support Mr Modi enjoyed among their rank and file which had persuaded the leadership to overcome their reservations and openly back him.

At the same time, events at Goa clearly showed that the BJP leadership had been bulldozed by their party workers to appoint Mr Modi.

But RSS rank and file and hardcore BJP supporters don't just see him as development man.

They believe that at last they have a leader who, with their support, could take over the BJP and revive the Hindu issues the party had stood for in the past.

If Mr Modi disappoints them on those issues, then the ground on which he at present stands could open up and swallow him.

So, back to the tightrope.

On one side, if he does not pay sufficient attention to Hindu issues, he could lose his political base. On the other side, he will not be considered a national leader if he is too closely identified with issues that have been shown to have only a comparatively narrow appeal.

The Congress party will also be looking for opportunities to remind voters of the allegations about his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Maintaining his balance on this tightrope is going to be so difficult that Mr Modi could well fall off it before he reaches the final test - the general election.

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