By Ramaswamy Mohan –
Even as Congress struggles to cope with a string of state poll setbacks, its chief rival BJP is in no position to exploit public discontent
In the reduced circumstances in which the Congress finds itself in, the party’s greatest ally is the chief opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party. But so divided is the principal rightist party, once considered the only alternative to the dynasty-driven Nehru-Gandhi party, that it could hardly find consensus internally to decide on anything, including arriving at the vital political decisions of nominating candidates for the presidential polls to elect the two symbolic heads of state in the president and vice-president. An internal survey conducted by Congress in early 2012 reportedly indicated that if a general election were to be called this instant, the party would not even win 100 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house, of 545 members.
The straw of comfort the party could draw from the survey was that the BJP was only a few seats ahead.There is fair reason to believe that the game changer in the next parliamentary elections which, in the normal course, are due in 2014 could be a ragtag combination of regional parties. The state the Congress is in currently can be gauged by repeated loss of political space in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state which in poll arithmetic holds sway because of proportional representation in the Lok Sabha. In most recent elections to state assemblies, Congress failed to retain Goa, lost again to the Akalis in Punjab, was virtually washed out in Uttar Pradesh while it merely squeaked through in tiny, mountainous Uttarakhand while registering an impressive win only in Manipur.
The party’s showing in most recent local polls has been equally pedestrian in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In Andhra Pradesh, a key state that helped Congress gain the numbers needed to be called from Rashtrapati Bhavan to head the government in 2009, the party lies in tatters, unable to cope with the twin challenge of the continuing agitation for a separate Telangana state and the growing popularity of YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy, particularly in the Andhra region. “At the lowest ebb,” which is a phrase used by a Congress member, would be an understatement. It is a far cry from the days in which Sonia Gandhi led the party back to power six years after reluctantly taking over the reins in 1998. To be voted in again as the country’s leading party in 2009 was a pleasant surprise.
“In the light of the Congress lying in tatters, the BJP should have been gung-ho over its prospects in the national elections. There is, however, a distinct air of defeatism with the party struggling to retain control and maintain party discipline among its fold”
Three years of disenchantment have led to the present impasse in which the party has been unable to muster the anticipated overwhelming support for its presidential candidates even from among its UPA allies. On the economic and industrial front, the country has fared worse, with economists now pointing out that 67 percent of GDP is government debt, which means successive rulers have been milking the cow or virtually robbing the people blind. Whenever the government was on the edge of a precipice over the last couple of years as in the ratification of the nuclear deal with the U.S., the $35 billion scam in selling off 2G spectrum avowedly to fuel the mobile telecommunications revolution or the passing of the elusive Lok Pal (ombudsman) Bill, Sonia Gandhi was reportedly heard saying it was better to let it happen as the Congress was likely to win more seats in early polls rather than in facing the electorate two years hence.
She is said to be relying heavily on the government’s record in putting a number of allies in jail for graft, including Ms Kanimozhi, daughter of old and doughty ally from Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi. In the light of the Congress lying in tatters, the BJP should have been gung-ho over its prospects in the national elections. There is, however, a distinct air of defeatism, particularly in view of the party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh, which was only marginally better than the Congress even as the regional Samajwadi Party swept the polls in a landslide displacing the champion of the low castes, Ms Mayawati and her BSP, while also trouncing the national parties.
That the BJP is a house divided is nowhere better symbolised than in the mess in Karnataka, the sole southern state in which the party rules. How a national party was struggling to retain control and maintain party discipline among its fold was made apparent in messy changes in the leadership. One chief minister, B.S.Yeddyurappa, was removed because the ombudsman pulled him up for illegal land allotments by the state and his successor, Sadananda Gowda, was given short shrift because the former built up dissidence, threatening to pull out altogether and form a rebel party. The lack of leadership was highlighted in decision on issues, big and small, being dragged out in public forums by feuding regional satraps while the chieftains in the capital played fire fighters rather than leaders.
“At a time of grave economic challenges in a changing world, India could be left rudderless if one or the other of two major political forces does not gather the reins of power with a clear majority and attempt to steer the ship”
It’s not only poor performances in Uttar Pradesh that haunts BJP. The perceived strongman from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is a much reviled figure nationally because of his alleged links to a pogrom against Muslims run in retaliation to the burning of a train carrying Hindu ‘sadhus’ (holy men). While Modi, considered as a remover of graft and chief facilitator of a vibrant state economy, would like to be projected as prime minister material, there are many who in his own party believe such a course would be disastrous because of his negative image among the Muslim minority across the nation, more relevantly in UP where a Muslim vote bank can make or break political ambitions. Whispers have been heard in BJP circles about how the party really believes in looking ahead to the 2019 general elections rather than 2014. The party is hoping to play a support role in the event of the third political force in India gathering enough steam to make a bid for power two years hence.
In an era of coalition governments, anything is possible. It is eight years since Atal Behari Vajpayee completed a full term as PM, in which time there has only been regression in the public perception of the suitability of the right wing party to head a coalition of disparate forces. Truth to tell, BJP has suffered most from not having a central figure like Vajpayee to lead it at the hustings. Lal Krishna Advani, once thought of as a prime ministerial candidate, took the religious hard line of ‘Hindutva’ years ago and he has never quite shaken off the stigma of associating with the destruction in 1992 of Babri Masjid, an ancient disputed religious structure thought to have been built on the ruins of a temple in Ayodhya, which Hindus revere as the birthplace of their god, Lord Rama.
An advantage for the Congress is it can kill dissidence within the party because of the presence of an unquestioned central authority with all members beholden to the Nehru-Gandhi family. The Congress is also known to play the dynastic card unabashedly, its latest moves to project Rahul Gandhi ahead of the 2014 polls being just another instance of a family driving a party. Having no such advantage, the BJP leadership as well as its NDA alliance are seen to be helpless in the face of a struggle for power and position in a loose set-up. The signs clearly are loaded towards a grim political scenario in which a hung parliament is not to be ruled out. The emergence of a third force is not an unknown phenomenon in Indian politics but such an eventuality would make for a free-for-all kind of horse trading environment as politicians grapple for power in a vacuum. At a time of grave economic challenges in a changing world, India could be left rudderless if one or the other of two major political forces does not gather the reins of power with a clear majority and attempt to steer the ship.
The writer is Resident Editor in Chennai of the Deccan Chronicle group of publications with 38 years experience in journalism.