NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A year ago, India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was tearing itself apart after a second successive general election defeat, its dream of leading India’s rise to the global centre stage in tatters.
But with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition engulfed by corruption scandals and feuding with its allies, the Hindu nationalists see a reversal of fortunes.
The next election is not due until 2014, but with Congress under pressure and a third front of communist and regional parties in decline, the BJP is plotting a return to power sooner than even its most die-hard supporters might have expected.
“The Congress is wounded. At this rate, the prospects of the coalition completing its full term look bleak,” said commentator Sudheendra Kulkarni who served as an aide to BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but has since severed links with the party.
“The BJP, on the other hand, has found its equilibrium after the despondency and squabbling of last year. It has a credible chance of coming back to power at the head of a coalition, something that could not be said in 2010.”
At the weekend, the southern Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) threatened to pull out its ministers from Singh’s cabinet because of a dispute over a seat sharing plan in Tamil Nadu elections next month, setting off a new crisis for the ruling coalition.
By contrast, the battles within the BJP have quietened, its leaders united on a plan of attack against the ruling party that involves blocking parliament and denying Singh the space to pursue his reform agenda.
But the BJP still doesn’t have a clear leader and that is a dilemma at the heart of its Hindu nationalist identity.
For many in the BJP, the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is a top candidate to take over the mantle from the 84-year-old Lal Krishna Advani.
Modi has ruled Gujarat with an iron-hand, ushering in a business friendly environment where the state’s gross domestic product is growing at 11 percent, more than India’s overall growth rate of around 8.5 percent.
But Modi is linked to one of the darkest chapters in independent India’s history when Hindu mobs set upon minority Muslims in Gujarat killing thousands, in retaliation for an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in which nearly 60 were killed.
Modi, who was the chief minister at the time in 2002, is accused of not doing enough to protect the Muslims, and even condoning the bloodshed. He denies the allegations, but they have stuck and in 2005 the United States denied him a visa on grounds of religious intolerance.
It’s a question the BJP has to confront, and which will determine its ability to successfully rebuild a coalition of regional parties that helped put it in power in 1998.
“If the BJP were to hold a U.S.-style primary, there will be only one result: Modi,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a right-wing columnist.
“That’s the kind of support he has among the party rank and file. But he may not be acceptable to the allies or indeed to the rest of the country.”
Indeed, some of the Hindu nationalists’ long running themes, such as building a temple on the ruins of a mosque razed by mobs to avenge the wrongs of history, no longer resonate with India’s young who are more focused on riding the country’s economic boom.
In January, the BJP sought to hoist the Indian flag in Srinagar, the summer capital of Muslim-majority Kashmir, where the biggest separatist protests in years have only recently quietened. It was seen as a provocative move at a time when the region is seething with anti-India anger.
“The BJP really has to decide what kind of party it wants to be and what is the image it wants to protect both internally and externally,” said Kulkarni.
The BJP, for all its resurgence, is still a party that relies on regional groups in a large swathe of southern India where its influence is limited, or even in the Hindi heartland in the north where it has been forced to enter into alliances with powerful parties such as in the key state of Bihar.
None of those parties are comfortable with its divisive programmes, fearing they would lose support among Muslims who make up 12 percent of India’s billion-plus population.
Until it resolves its leadership issue, the BJP is unlikely to try to push Congress from power. Instead, it will focus efforts on discrediting the government in the eyes of voters by keeping up pressure on the coalition and prolonging a policy paralysis.
Last week, the party seized the moral high ground after the Supreme Court cancelled the government’s appointment of P.J. Thomas as the country’s Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), whose appointment the party had opposed.
Singh has taken responsibility for the appointment.
In February, the BJP forced the coalition to accede to its demand for a multi-party parliamentary probe into a $39 billion telecoms licensing scandal - the biggest in independent India’s history - where it hopes to embarrass the government further including have the prime minister appear before the commission.
“They are in attack mode. They are hoping all this pressure will bring out the internal contradictions in the Congress,” Dasgupta said.
“There is already a civil war on in the Congress with a strong anti-Manmohan campaign. They are going to try and hasten it along.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jonathan Thatcher