Who could replace Narendra Modi?

Arvind kejriwal left prison determined to make up for lost time. Delhi’s chief minister, who also leads an opposition party, had been in jail since March on corruption charges that he says are politically motivated. Released on interim bail on May 10th, midway through a six-week general election, he denounced the prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a “dictator” at a news conference the next day. But Mr Kejriwal also lobbed an unexpected political grenade, claiming that if the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) wins a third consecutive election victory as expected, Mr Modi would step down next year when he hits the party’s unofficial retirement age of 75.

His replacement, Mr Kejriwal suggested, would be the steely 59-year-old home minister, Amit Shah, who has led the government’s clampdown on political dissent. Mr Shah quickly countered that the bjp’s constitution contained no retirement rule and Mr Modi would serve another full five-year term. Still, the timing was irksome for the Hindu nationalist party, which has lately hardened its Islamophobic rhetoric following lower-than-expected voter turnout amid whispers of Modi fatigue. Mr Kejriwal has touched upon one of the most delicate questions within the bjp: who could replace Mr Modi when he eventually retires?

Succession is not the bjp’s immediate concern. Although it used the unofficial retirement rule to oust several party veterans in 2019, the party is very unlikely to apply it to Mr Modi given his popularity and apparently rude health. If the bjp wins again in 2029, he could do another five years, surpassing Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s longest-serving prime minister. Asked in an interview on May 6th whether he would run again in 2029, Mr Modi prevaricated. “No country should run on the basis of one person,” he said, adding cryptically: “But nobody can script their future only by chanting in hope.”

And yet the bjp faces a succession problem nonetheless. Mr Modi is its greatest asset: around a third of those who voted for the bjp in 2019 said that they did so primarily because of him. This also makes the party vulnerable: surveys suggest that without Mr Modi at the helm, its support could drop to within striking distance of the opposition. Some analysts argue that the lower turnout already indicates an element of “Modi fatigue” among voters. And the bjp has long trumpeted its meritocratic culture in contrast to the Gandhi family’s dominance of the Congress Party, the main opposition group.

As a result, the bjp needs to start raising the profile of potential heirs in preparation for Mr Modi’s retirement (or sudden ill-health). With several candidates in the running, though, it must tread carefully to avoid internecine conflict. Mr Modi also has an interest in picking a competent heir to preserve his legacy. But like other strongman leaders, he must be wary of anointing someone who could turn him into a lame duck. “The bjp is in uncharted territory,” says Gilles Verniers of Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Complicating matters further is the role of two other stakeholders. One is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or rss, the Hindu nationalist organisation from which the bjp emerged and whose primary concern is religious identity. The other is the business community, a major source of bjp funding whose confidence is essential to get close to the party’s goal of making India a developed economy by 2047, the centenary of independence.

Mr Shah is considered the front-runner, thanks largely to his close ties to Mr Modi, a fellow Gujarati and political ally since the 1980s. But Mr Shah faces a strong challenge from Yogi Adityanath, a 51-year-old Hindu priest and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (up), India’s most populous state. In a survey in February, he was voted India’s most popular chief minister and a close runner-up behind Mr Shah as favourite to succeed Mr Modi. Nitin Gadkari, the 66-year-old roads minister, was in third place.

All three publicly downplay their leadership aspirations. Still, there have been signs of friction backstage. Mr Adityanath first stirred controversy within the bjp after founding the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Force) militia, or hyv, in 2002. As well as conducting violent attacks on Muslims, it often criticised the bjp for softening Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) and sometimes campaigned against bjp candidates in local elections.

Some senior bjp figures did not want him as up’s leader; Mr Modi at first favoured one of his own protégés. The rss had reservations about Mr Adityanath, too: unlike Mr Modi and Mr Shah he did not rise through its ranks. But it sees him as a potent vote-winner and Hindutva advocate so has tried to keep him on side, intervening in 2021 when tensions flared over Mr Modi’s attempt to install an ally as deputy chief minister. Last year, the rss stepped in to urge better co-ordination between Mr Adityanath and the bjp’s state unit.

Mr Adityanath is divisive outside the bjp too. Although the hyv has largely disbanded, he is still the most egregious purveyor of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the bjp’s top ranks. In 2019 the Election Commission banned him from campaigning for three days over Islamophobic remarks. He has also introduced controversial policies in up, such as banning halal products and bulldozing the homes of many Muslims accused of criminality (his government says it only targets illegal homes). In April he accused Congress (without evidence) of wanting to enforce sharia law.

One concern for the bjp is that such antics limit his appeal beyond the Hindutva base. He lacks broad business support too and some fear that he is less likely than Mr Shah to continue Mr Modi’s approach to economic management. This is despite the fact that Mr Adityanath has recently overseen an economic boom in up, where many now credit him with building lots of new roads, attracting foreign investment and improving security. In January, he boosted his national profile by overseeing the inauguration of a controversial Hindu temple and a big infrastructure upgrade around it.

Even so, Mr Shah has several advantages. He has Mr Modi’s ear. He oversees the police and other security agencies. And as the bjp’s electoral strategist and a member of its decision-making parliamentary board, he has considerable say in personnel moves. One possibility is that Mr Adityanath is given “some innocuous” ministerial post in Delhi after the election, says Sharat Pradhan, author of a book on the up chief minister. That would thwart his plan to remain as up’s leader, a far more powerful role, and to emulate Mr Modi’s jump from Gujarat to the premiership.

But Mr Adityanath might well resist a move to Delhi by threatening to leave the party. And shifting him from up could damage the bjp’s prospects there. Mr Shah, meanwhile, might harbour hopes that Mr Modi will anoint him as heir before retiring, perhaps with a promotion to deputy prime minister. But many suspect that Mr Modi would rather leave on a high and let others take responsibility for who comes next. In that case, Mr Shah’s prospects would dim as he is more feared than loved in the party and among business leaders.

Mr Shah’s other vulnerability is a lack of charisma. He often makes incendiary remarks about the opposition and Muslims. He is no orator. As a Hindutva icon he pales alongside Mr Adityanath’s priestly saffron robes. His government record is less tangible than others, such as Mr Gadkari, who has overseen a road-building splurge. Mr Gadkari also has strong backing from business and the rss, whose headquarters are in his hometown and constituency. But Mr Gadkari’s relative reticence on religion and outspokenness on other issues has irked some bjp leaders (including Mr Modi) and in 2022, he was dropped from its parliamentary board.

How such dynamics evolve depends substantially on the election result. Another strong bjp victory, while giving Mr Modi more leeway to delay his retirement, would perpetuate his personalisation of power. A disappointing result, meanwhile, could prompt calls for an earlier succession, intensifying the struggle among leading contenders. Either way, the transition will be fraught with risk. 

source : economist

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