Don't bet on India to elect the Thatcherite
In a political system that rewards consensus figures, Narendra Modi's popularity may not earn him the top job.


Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi speaks during the "Vibrant Gujarat Summit" at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat January 12, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Although the Indian BJP bandwagon seems to be both large and picking up speed, there is less to it than meets the eye.

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  • Appearances can be deceiving – why Narendra Modi will not be India’s next leader.

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  • Yes, 48% of Indians want Narendra Modi to be prime minister, but are opinion polls enough to determine an election?

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On the face of it, the odds of becoming India's prime minister next year have never looked better for Narendra Modi. Since winning a third straight election as chief minister of the industrial state of Gujarat in December, he has swiftly consolidated his status as the putative leader of India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. In March, he muscled his way into the party's top decision-making body in Delhi, the central parliamentary board. One of his trusted confidantes has taken charge of the party's campaign in the electorally vital state of Uttar Pradesh, and across the media the terms "BJP supporter" and "Modi partisan" are fast becoming synonymous.

But appearances can be deceiving. Although the Modi bandwagon seems to be both large and picking up speed, there is less to it than meets the eye. Indians and foreigners, including foreign investors, should recognize that in all likelihood he won't be the country's next leader.

Take his popularity in opinion polls. A Nielsen survey released last month found 48% of Indians want Mr. Modi to be prime minister, compared to just 18% for his most likely rival, Congress Party heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. A survey by TV channel Headlines Today gives a BJP-led coalition a comfortable edge over the ruling Congress Party-led alliance. It also suggests that if the BJP names Mr. Modi as its prime ministerial candidate upfront—instead of deciding after election results are in—the party's seats in Parliament will increase dramatically.

But individual popularity would count for more if India had a presidential system similar to America's. Rather, as in Britain or other Westminster-style democracies, a party or alliance that hopes to capture power must win a majority of the 543 directly elected seats in Parliament.

Yet the BJP is competitive in only about 300 of these constituencies, mostly in northern and western India. Even at the height of its popularity in 1999, under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party managed to scrabble together only 182 seats—90 short of a simple majority—and garnered just about a quarter of the national vote. In several states, including Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Kerala, where the BJP is virtually non-existent, the party has no reliable way of converting Mr. Modi's crowd-pulling power into seats.

As India's polity has fractured over the past 25 years, government formation has come to hinge on alliance-building in Parliament. This usually means that one of the two national parties (Congress or BJP) cobbles together a coalition with the help of a motley crew of regional chieftains and caste-based outfits. This process invariably throws up a consensus-building prime minister acceptable to a wide cross-section of parties. Both the BJP's Mr. Vajpayee and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party fit this mold.

Mr. Modi, by contrast, is adored by his supporters but reviled by his opponents. He is nobody's idea of a consensus candidate. Many potential BJP allies (such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh) will be wary of alienating Muslim voters by cohabiting with him. Many still remember the anti-Muslim riots that took place on Mr. Modi's watch in Gujarat in 2002 after a Muslim mob torched a train carriage filled with Hindu pilgrims. More than 1,000 people died, about four-fifths of them Muslim.

Nor is Mr. Modi's large social-media footprint—at last count, 1.6 million followers each on Twitter and Facebook FB +4.91% —as much of an advantage as is often assumed. Only about 10% of India's 1.2 billion citizens have Internet access, and they're usually the least likely to vote. Simply put, it's a big step from "liking" a Facebook page to joining a get-out-the-vote operation or distributing campaign literature in your neighborhood.

None of this is to dismiss Mr. Modi's genuine popularity, even if it is yet to translate into votes outside his home state of Gujarat. For many, he offers a promise of decisive leadership and clean governance that contrasts with the policy drift and corruption scandals that have come to define Prime Minister Singh's nine-year-old government. For others, Mr. Modi stands for a muscular Hindu identity, and with it a tougher stand against Maoism and radical Islamist terrorism.

Pro-market liberals have lately begun to flirt with Mr. Modi's Thatcherite message of "minimum government, maximum governance," and his willingness to broach such subjects as the privatization of state-owned railway lines. His record of building roads, ports, power plants and a generally business-friendly environment in Gujarat appeals to a new middle class that wants its politicians to offer people a hand up, not a handout. And for some voters, the self-made Mr. Modi—the son of a railway platform tea seller—offers an antidote to the rot of dynastic politics.

Still the odds are stacked against him, which in turn represents a broader problem facing those who seek dramatic change in India. Having (at least some of) the right ideas, and even communicating them to the masses, isn't enough. Indian politics rewards consensus-building centrists, not polarizing leaders who repel and attract voters in equal measure. In many countries, someone like Mr. Modi would stand a strong chance of becoming prime minister. Unfortunately for him, India isn't one of them.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01.

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