From Congress-mukt Bharat to Congress-bhakt Bharatiya Janata Party is an unlikely journey but it seems to be going that way at remarkable speed. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi started on the road to New Delhi in late 2013 there was a chorus of party voices against his nomination. At the time there seemed to be no shortage of leaders, especially at the state level. Shivraj Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh were considered serious prime ministerial material, not to speak of the eternal candidate, Lal Krishna Advani. The BJP was full of leaders, assertive, fractious, opinionated, exactly how a political party should be. Now they are like an army of cheerleaders and Congress yesmen than anything human.

Advani and his generation have been shunted off into the twilight of the Margdarshak Mandal and irrelevance, forsaken by their own protégés. The younger generation has little to say other than heil to the chief. The man who endorsed him first and with great passion, Arun Shourie, is a pariah because he had differences with the leader. There is an eerie sense of déjà vu when you think of Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister of Maharashtra; he could pass as a clone of the procession of Congress nonentities that have headed the state of late. If he were removed it is doubtful if anyone would notice his exit. In any case, nowadays everyone is a disciplined soldier of the high command. The only qualification Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar can show is his years as an RSS pracharak. His masterly inactivity during the Jat agitation last year ended with a total surrender to their demand for job reservations. Why he waited until 30 people were killed was never explained. In the process he has not only alienated the community but also jeopardised the party’s chances in elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly.

UP is indispensable to BJP plans for the future but there’s no chief minister-designate. Doubtless the leadership will find Ram, Rahim or Richard to fill the slot when the time comes. Everyone knows how well that worked in the Bihar elections of 2015. It is entirely possible, of course, that there is a master plan, rather like Dr Evil’s in Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me; the leader will install a mini-me clone in every major state to ensure uniformity of thought and deed. It might even please his mentors in the RSS as everyone would line up in the same way. And just as in Bihar and Assam, a number of defectors have been preferred to party loyalists.

That is even truer of Uttarakhand, but it isn’t supposed to matter because this is a one-man show. If Modi can’t persuade voters, who else can? The comparison with Indira Gandhi is irresistible. Like her, this is a person who is expected to reconcile all the contradictions, resolve all the differences through sheer force of personality. Perhaps that is the minor theme of this round of elections, to show everyone “PM hai, woh CM hai, har kursi par Modi hai”. The RSS won’t be happy but they can live with it if he delivers UP and the Ram Mandir. But even if he doesn’t, Modi’s personal fortunes may not be seriously affected. Perhaps that is the reason he feels he can take the chance.

It is a massive risk as the rout in Bihar showed, especially as the environment is less conducive than 2014. At that time BJP was ranged against an opponent that looked defeated before the battle, by the great recession, sky high oil prices, unending scandal and policy paralysis, and out of ideas after a ten-year incumbency. This time the party comes on the heels of demonetisation and an unprecedented demonstration of cluelessness and inefficiency in implementing it. All the big talk of governance and delivery seems to ring hollow against the abysmal performance. The promise of “acche din”  looks ever more like a mirage.

Perhaps it is an exercise in futility to parse the traditional factors such as caste calculations and the steady communal polarisation in UP since 2013. Certainly, there is no wave as in 2014 and the succeeding months when BJP won everything it contested. If the party can pull it off against the odds it would be a victory one man’s for will and charisma. It would be no reason to celebrate though it will be presented as yet another endorsement of the party’s principles. There could be nothing worse for a party or political movement as it elevates the individual to a point where he alone matters. The cadre and the party are irrelevant in his absence.

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