Modi is a divisive figure in BJP as well

Neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be said to be battle ready for either the next round of assembly elections later this year or the big test of a general election next year.

Perhaps their lack of preparedness does not really matter, for the voters seem to make up their minds about which party to support notwithstanding their bumbling, as in the case of the Congress, or infighting where the BJP is considered.

As much was clear from the latter's sweeping victories in the six by-elections in Gujarat, confirming Chief Minister Narendra Modi's undiminished popularity in the state.

However, the way in which the voters can defy conventional wisdom was evident from the resounding defeat of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United JD-U) at the hands of his main rival, former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), in the Maharajganj assembly constituency.

The JD-U's defeat queers the pitch for Nitish Kumar, for he may now lack the gumption to persist with his opposition to Modi's possible nomination by the BJP as the party's prime ministerial candidate.

At a time when never-say-die L.K. Advani remains the only prominent BJP leader who is not an avowed admirer of Modi, the setback suffered by Nitish Kumar obviously weakens the group in the saffron camp which is wary about Modi's elevation.

At the moment, apart from Advani, the group comprises Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar in the BJP and the Shiv Sena outside. Advani's argument is that the hoopla about Modi is unjustified because he has only added a bit of a gloss to Gujarat's success story since the state, with its known entrepreneurial talent, was always seen as "developed".

In contrast, the achievement of someone like Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh is far more laudable since his state was known for its backwardness for decades. Yet, he has been able to lift it by its bootstraps, so to say, to be among the front-runners for its growth rate.

Chauhan, of course, has played down Advani's praise. So has BJP president Rajnath Singh, who has said that the octogenarian leader was praising all the BJP chief ministers. Perhaps realizing that he is fighting a losing battle against Modi, who has been described time and again by Rajnath Singh as the party's most popular leader, Advani has now agreed to let the Gujarat strong man head the BJP's campaign committee for the 2014 elections.

However, as a last-ditch attempt to hold his ground, Advani has called for a second campaign committee for the assembly elections this year. Surprisingly, he wanted former party chief Nitin Gadkari to head it although the two have been at loggerheads over B.S. Yeddyurappa's role in Karnataka and other matters.

What these skirmishes among the bigwigs suggest is that the BJP is hardly in a position to present a united face as the elections come near. For all practical purposes, therefore, it can be said that Modi is as much of a divisive and polarizing figure inside the BJP as he is outside, where his name is anathema to the minorities and Hindu liberals.

It is not impossible that the minorities have already been so unnerved by the Modi-for-PM campaign that they have turned to the RJD, as the 137,000 vote margin of victory of its candidate in Maharajganj shows. If so, the political equations in Bihar are in the process of being rewritten.

It is however doubtful if the Congress will be able to take any advantage of a return of the minorities in large numbers to the secular camp. In the Bihar byelection, it came a poor third after the RJD and the JD-U. At the national level, if the BJP is riven by infighting, the Congress can be described as a model of unity where virtually no dissenting voices are heard. But it is the silence of a graveyard, for the party is apparently sleepwalking towards an electoral disaster.

The only noteworthy feature of its functioning is the occasional assertions by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that there are no differences between him and party president Sonia Gandhi. These claims are not unlike his earlier denials of the charge that he is a lame duck.

Yet, as the decline of the growth rate to 4.8 per cent shows, the country is not far from the Hindu rate of growth of 3-4 per cent during the period of the licence-permit raj. The Sikh rate of growth - in Congress M.P. Mani Shankar Aiyar's words - of 8-9 per cent, which made the "India story" resonate round the world, is now a fading memory. It goes without saying that if the decline continues, the Congress will suffer a serious setback in 2014.

Its only hope, therefore, is to push through the populist food security bill even by passing an ordinance if parliamentary approval cannot be secured. The party probably also expects that resistance to Modi in the saffron camp will finally scuttle his prime ministerial hopes.

(08.06.2013 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)