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By Anjan Chakraborty
Speculation has been rife lately within India's centre-right nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), over who will be its candidate for prime minister in the 2014 general elections.
There were four possible candidates a few months back, but the choice seems to have narrowed to Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, or Sushma Swaraj, the party's leader in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament.
The rumblings come from a restive faction that has tired of a leadership crisis in the party. This has become evident after warring factions within the BJP exposed themselves when anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal accused party president Nitin Gadkari of illegally acquiring government land. BJP lawmakers Ram Jethmalani and Yashwant Sinha were among those who demanded Gadkari's resignation in the wake of Kejriwal's allegations and media reports that questioned the source of funding for Gadkari's firm.
Modi seems to have the edge over his competitors, considering his performance as chief minister of Gujarat where he has brought uninterrupted power supplies, smooth roads and a flood of investment. He also enjoys the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing volunteer force that controls the BJP.
Despite Modi's advantages and the BJP's record of not being known for surprises or risky manoeuvres, his candidacy is not assured.
The BJP knows that wresting power from the Congress party, which holds the government in a tenuous grip thanks to a coalition government, won't be easy in 2014. And like the Congress, the BJP won't be able to do it alone. It needs allies such as the Janata Dal (United) and its leader Nitish Kumar, chief minister of the impoverished state of Bihar.
Kumar's party, a key constituent of the BJP-led opposition alliance in the country, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has repeatedly stressed that its alliance with the BJP will collapse if Modi becomes the NDA's prime ministerial candidate. The 2002 communal riots of Gujarat that killed up to 2,500 people, have made Kumar wary. After all, he has the support of a large Muslim population in Bihar, and the last person they want to support is someone like Modi, who has faced criticism in India and abroad for failing to stop the riots and for reportedly encouraging them.
The BJP has also failed to keep Modi's apparent friction with party president Gadkari under wraps. Senior RSS member MG Vaidya caused controversy by suggesting that Modi was stoking Gadkari's resignation demand by a section of BJP leaders following the recent accusations against him.
As for praise showered on Modi recently by veteran party leader LK Advani and the BJP's leader in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house of parliament, Arun Jaitley, that is unlikely anything more than campaign rhetoric. Swaraj herself has praised him, but you can read it the same way. What else would they say about a party comrade while campaigning on his behalf in his bid for re-election as Gujarat's chief minister? Just remember that Advani and Jaitley remain contenders, however nominally, for the party's nominee for prime minister.
However, some BJP members think that Modi must get the nod to build up the party's voting base and settle its leadership crisis.
After all, it is Modi's neat marketing of the "Gujarat development model" that has earned him praise from the urban middle class, which the BJP needs to cash in to get the numbers in the Lok Sabha.
But what if the scars of the Gujarat riots return to haunt Modi, not that they have ever really gone away? It will provide the Congress with a prime opportunity to resurrect its dwindling Muslim voting base across the country. At that point, BJP factions will try to eat their own, and NDA supporters likely will bolt.
It is here that Sushma Swaraj could become the compromise candidate. She enjoys excellent camaraderie with all the allies in the NDA, and is quite capable of bringing the BJP factions under one fold. She also doesn't have the burden of buried skeletons -- although she was criticised for her comments on foreign retail investment during a debate in parliament.
It is still a long way to go before the BJP makes up its mind, but it would be impossible to say with confidence that this conservative party will make a conservative choice when it at last must choose.
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