Narendra Modi, prime ministerial aspirant, is faced with a problem of Patelian proportions. The party’s middle and lower orders want him to be Prime Minister but, eventually, the day will come when he will have to see what serves his party’s and India’s interests best.

A little reminder from history seems to be in order here because most people remain blissfully unaware of it throughout their lives. Even the few who do know it, often forget its caprices. It is the Gandhi-Patel-Nehru-Party story of April 1946.

In terms of expectations, 1946 was not dissimilar to 2013. It was not known then that the British would be gone in 16 months. That surprise came in February 1947 when Lord Mountbatten announced it out of the blue.

But an interim Indian government was to be formed. That in itself was a major reason for hope to be in the air, just as it is now, including the possibility of an interim government because neither the UPA nor the NDA might manage 272 seats.

In 1946, the Congress, like the BJP now, had to pick a PM. There were three candidates: Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad who had been Congress president for six years; Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a great organiser and leader with an earthy sense of India and its politics; and Jawaharlal Nehru, with none of these attributes.

The nominations for the new Congress president were due on April 29. Gandhiji had already indicated his preference for Nehru to Azad on April 20.

On the appointed day, 12 out of the 15 Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) nominated Patel. The remaining three did not nominate Jawaharlal Nehru. No one seems to know what they did.

Gandhiji, stubborn as ever, then asked J.B. Kriplani to canvass support for Nehru. So some signatures were collected from those who were not actually legally entitled to nominate a Congress president. That privilege belonged solely to the 15 PCC chiefs.

But no one challenged this and Nehru’s nomination was accepted. Immediately, Sardar Patel, on Gandhiji’s request, withdrew his nomination.

In fairness to him, Gandhiji did tell Nehru about what had happened. Nehru, it has been recorded, responded with silence.

After Nehru had been foisted by Gandhiji, Azad, who had wanted to continue as Congress president because that was the route to the PMship, decided to support him. But others, including Rajendra Prasad, were most upset that Patel had been asked to stand down (or in Nehru’s words, be ‘Number Two’ which he himself had refused to be).

Why did Patel agree? First, because Gandhiji had asked him to and secondly, because he did not want a divided leadership to confront Jinnah and Co.

BJP’s Patel problem

It looks as if the BJP is faced with a similar dilemma. It has to choose between Mr. Modi as Prime Minister and someone else. Who that someone is doesn’t really matter.

There are four possibilities.

(A) It chooses Mr. Modi, and NDA wins;

(B) It chooses Mr. Modi, and NDA loses;

(C) It dumps Mr. Modi, and NDA wins;

(D) It dumps Mr. Modi, and NDA loses.

Clearly, A is the most preferred outcome for the BJP, and D is the least preferred one. B also is not to be countenanced. So the choice boils down to A and C.

The BJP has to work out the probability of these two events. On current reckoning, it seems to be assigning a very high probability to A and a very low one to C. Hence the tussle between L.K. Advani and Mr. Modi.

But eventually, as the elections come closer, it will have to revisit the odds on C. Even though they will change, they are unlikely to change drastically in C’s favour. Mr Advani may think he has it in him but he is probably in a minority of one.

Modi’s moment

But politics is about surprises. So suppose something happens that closes the gap between A and C to a narrow one.

Will the party then tell Mr Modi what Gandhiji told Patel, namely, in the interests of unity, will you stand down? What will Mr Modi do then?

His decision might have to involve, when the time comes, paying heed to his ‘inner voice’ which places party and NDA above self. It worked wonders for the Congress, if you recall, in 2004.

The problem, however, is that there is no one in the BJP with the moral authority of Gandhiji. This means that if the party has to choose between Mr Modi and someone else, Mr Modi will have to show a degree of selflessness not usually seen in politics. Tyag works well in India.

That, truly, will be his real test, the one thing that will truly set him apart, and make him an even bigger and unstoppable force to reckon with the next time around.

( This article was first published in The Hindu print edition dated May 2, 2013. )