Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The long-awaited contest between a seemingly reluctant Rahul Gandhi and a certainly divisive Narendra Modi has come one step closer with the elevation of Modi to the chairmanship of the BJP's National Campaign Committee.

The appointment, which appears to have triggered the resignation of party stalwart LK Advani, makes it almost certain that, were the BJP to win the 2014 election, Modi would be its candidate to become prime minister.

Thus the BJP appears to have answered the question that it has been considering for the past couple of years. If Modi were to be the BJP's leadership candidate the party may struggle to form a coalition. But if the BJP were led by someone less appealing, its chances of being in the running to form a coalition would be lower.

Modi's appeal comes from his claims to having made Gujarat a well-run and economically successful state. His claims have been challenged – many of Gujarat’s social indicators are poor, and other states claim to have recorded higher rates of economic growth in recent years. But Modi has certainly staked a claim to successful governance – something which many Indians, and certainly its growing middle class, crave.

Modi's Damoclean sword, however, is that many blame him for the anti-Muslim riots of 2002. While he has been exonerated by various courts, the role of the state has been widely criticized. Following a fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, close to 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs while, in many cases, security forces stood by. Whether or not they were instructed not to intervene remains the subject of debate. As of now, Modi remains banned from the US for his responsibility for 'severe violations of religious freedom'.

This is a problem for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition led by the BJP which remains headed by LK Advani. Some parties within the NDA garner support from Muslims, and some have already stated their concerns were the BJP to be led by Modi. Nonetheless, a poll in May suggested that 43 per cent of Indians preferred Modi to be the next prime minister, against 36 per cent for Rahul Gandhi.

Indian political parties do not need to name a prime ministerial candidate prior to an election. While Modi seems certain to be their candidate, potentially this could change dependent on the outcome of the polls. This raises a question for Congress. While there is a widespread assumption that Rahul Gandhi would be their candidate, Gandhi has repeatedly stated his reluctance to take such a role.

Yet if the BJP is going into an election led by the strong, if divisive, Modi, Congress will need some credible leader or it risks emphasising its own indecisiveness – a major risk given its inability to push through legislation in the current parliamentary term. Some have suggested that the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, could be put forward, but Manmohan’s strength – public perceptions of his own virtue – have been undermined by the scale of corruption scandals that have occurred under his watch. While many of the BJP leadership are likely to have thought twice before supporting Modi, their decision makes it harder for Congress to delay announcing its strategy.  

Forecasting election outcomes in India is a difficult calling. While it is urbanizing fast, most of the country’s voters remain rural. The demands of rural voters often differ substantially from their urban counterparts. In 2004, the BJP campaigned with the slogan ‘India Shining’. Pollsters, over-focusing on easier to reach urban India, predicted a BJP success. Congress won. The 2009 election reverted to a series of state-based contests and the absence of any national campaign. Some pollsters over-compensated for their failings in 2004 and predicted victory for the ‘Third Front’ – a combination of left-wing and regional parties. Again, Congress won.

The issues that will determine the next election are pretty clear: governance, corruption and slowing economic growth. But the answers will differ in different states. Congress won the recent Karnataka state election despite being plagued by criticism for corruption scandals at a national level. But there voters turned against the incumbent BJP for its own poor governance.

It has become something of a mantra that Indian voters now re-elect parties that ‘deliver’. The problem is that in some states the BJP delivers, and in other states it does not. The same can be said for Congress and a host of regional parties. Even were the BJP or Congress to gain a majority – a highly unlikely outcome – in some respects the outcome of next year’s election, for India, would be as fragmented as a coalition of smaller parties.