By Swapan Dasgupta
In the five-year prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, the Haryana Assembly election of 1987 was a turning point. The spectacular victory of the Lok Dal led by Devi Lal came as a loud wake-up call to a Congress that had been basking in the glory of the Prime Minister's Lok Sabha sweep of 1984. The Haryana result came at a time the Congress was beginning to feel the pressure on corruption, notably the Bofors deal, but still felt supremely confident about Rajiv's ability to tide over the problem. After the Congress debacle in this small state, there was a discernible mood change. A divided and disoriented Opposition began to get its act together and within a year a combination of regional leaders forged the National Front that, additionally, also kept up a relationship with both the Left and the BJP. In 1989, the Congress was defeated by this loose combine.
History doesn't always repeat itself. Yet the multiplier effect of the 1987 Haryana verdict should serve as a warning to those inclined to view last week's Bihar results as a purely local event. The decimation of Lalu Yadav was perhaps occasioned by the collapse of his caste alliance and the people's dread of a return to 'jungle raj'—all local factors. However, the ignominious showing of the Congress can't be attributed solely to the absence of a credible Bihari face. Read with the results of local elections and by-elections in different states in the past six months, it suggests that the post-May 2009 belief in the re-emergence of Congress dominance was misplaced. Apart from Kerala where the UDF is on the comeback trail and Punjab where the Akali-BJP alliance is making a hash of governance, the Congress seems beleaguered even in the few states it is governing. So far it has pretended that the mid-term setbacks are inconsequential and will be offset by Rahul Gandhi's charisma. After the scale of the Bihar debacle, this self-confidence needs to be revisited.
In Bihar, Congress suffered a progressive loss of momentum between the first and sixth phase of polling. That this loss of political stamina coincided with the growing hullabaloo over corruption is significant. Despite Sonia Gandhi's spirited claim that she never fails to take action against errant leaders in its own ranks, there is a perception that the Congress and some UPA constituents are out to make hay while the sun shines. True, the BJP has its own share of misdemeanours in Karnataka. But these have been dwarfed by the sheer scale of the alleged corruption in the Commonwealth Games and the sale of 2G spectrum. As a rule, corruption at the Centre overrides state-level misdeeds.
If the Congress hasn't suffered a greater loss of public confidence, it is due to a feeling that there is no government-in-waiting: the NDA remains a non-player in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and a bit player in Uttar Pradesh. In 1987, Devi Lal's victory triggered frenetic activity in the Opposition and culminated in the emergence of V.P. Singh as the symbol of an anti-Congress upsurge. Can Nitish Kumar's re-election have the same effect?
The answer depends on how the NDA as a whole imbibes the lessons of its victory. It is not enough for the BJP to gloat over the fact that its better strike rate has silenced those who felt it was a drag on Nitish, just as it was on Naveen Patnaik in Orissa between 1999 and 2009. The BJP needs to appreciate the seminal contribution of Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to making the alliance coherent. Equally, there has to be an acknowledgement that those pressing for an 'assertive' BJP, including going it alone, were guilty of an adventurism that would have been punished by the voters. In Orissa, the BJP couldn't control the recklessness of its state leaders and forced an exasperated Patnaik to walk out of the NDA. This mistake wasn't repeated in Bihar and the dividends are there for the party to enjoy.
Secondly, a section of the BJP needs to realise that just as caste can be relegated to the background by a robust development agenda—recall how Narendra Modi tackled the so-called Patel revolt in 2007—it isn't obligatory to fall back on aggressive Hinduness to secure a wide measure of Hindu support. The restrained response to the Ayodhya judgment last September can serve as a future template.
Finally, by overplaying its dynastic and 'high command' culture, the Congress has willy-nilly conceded the space for regional pride to the other side. Modi has used this aggressively in Gujarat and Nitish less flamboyantly, but no less effectively, in Bihar. With decision-making resting more and more on the states, the NDA needs to base itself on clear federal principles. Even if it is bound by a national party, it could profit by transforming itself into a coalition of state parties. Ironically, B.S. Yedyurappa's subdued defiance of 'national' pressure has actually showcased the federal structure of the BJP. So paradoxically did the Bihar unit's decision to utilise the services of just one Modi for this election.
To be viable, the NDA cannot be a clone of the Congress-led UPA. Its distinctive dynamics must serve as the basis for its expansion into unchartered and lost territories. There is little need to be preoccupied over leadership. The PM-in-waiting will invariably reflect the temperament of the alliance.