By Swapan Dasgupta
November has been a very cruel month for the Congress-led UPA Government. It was bad enough that Ashok Chavan had to resign as Chief Minister of Maharashtra for his complicity in the Adarsh Housing Society scandal and an embarrassed party had to remove the by-now infamous Suresh Kalmadi from the only political post he held. Worse, the Government had to succumb to relentless Opposition pressure and extract a resignation from the controversial Telecommunications Minister A.Raja. Even this did not contain the embarrassment of the Comptroller and Auditor General's strictures against the Prime Minister for being a mute spectator to Raja's misdeeds.
Congress loyalists had hoped that the swift, sharp action against Chavan and the installation of Prithviraj Chauhan as the new Chief Minister of India's most prosperous state would redeem the party's image. The Opposition charge that Sonia Gandhi had forgotten to address the burning issue of corruption in her AICC speech had, after all, hurt. But the foot-dragging that accompanied the CAG report on the 2G disbursements and the bargaining over the future of Raja proved very damaging. The Supreme Court's harsh comments on the wilful obfuscation by the CBI and the Solicitor General's curious attempts to save the beleaguered Raja bolstered the impression that the Congress' priority was to bury scandals, not challenge corruption. The 'coalition dharma' Congress fell back on to explain why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had to kow-tow to an insatiable DMK made sense only to a cynical political class. The popular perception was one of disgust.
The resignation of Raja was one of the biggest successes of the Opposition since last year's general election. Raja symbolised both brazenness and political venality. Prime Minister Singh, his handlers say, had held out for two days against having Raja inducted into the Cabinet in May 2009 but had to finally wilt under sustained DMK pressure. He let expediency prevail over good sense.
A reason why the Congress procrastinated may have a lot to do with the self-serving There-is-no-alternative theory, the same TINA that misled Rajiv Gandhi into believing that the Bofors scandal was a drawing room preoccupation. This time, the Congress hasn't quite made the same mistake by persisting with Chavan and Raja and giving the Opposition unending political ammunition. At the same time, the UPA has insufficiently appreciated the fact that barely 16 months after it was convincingly defeated in the general election, the Opposition is back in business—not wholly but (to use a Nehruvian flourish) substantially and in good measure.
It may take the next weeks results of the Bihar Assembly election for this message to sink in. If the Congress, as is now the buzz, performs indifferently and Nitish Kumar romps home convincingly, it will resume the debate on the limits of Rahul Gandhi's 'magic'. Many Congress leaders who have convinced themselves of the unviability of persisting with the Prime Minister for very much longer may have to reconsider the theory that anti-incumbency will not stick to the party's heir presumptive.
Actually, the Congress has reasons to worry. The expected re-election of the Janata Dal (U)-BJP combine in Bihar will not be the only indicator. Assembly by-elections in places as afar as Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Gujarat have demonstrated that the political confusion in the BJP hasn't affected its support on the ground. Since there is always a direct correlation between Congress recovery and BJP decline, the by-election results should put question marks before the facile suggestion that the Congress is on course to recovering its dominant party status.
The extent to which the BJP can take advantage of the Congress' unwarranted smugness depends on what lessons it has drawn from both the corruption scandals and the Bihar election. The signals in this regard are very mixed. The BJP conducted itself with exemplary dignity after the pro-temple verdict of the Allahabad High Court in the Ayodhya case. In Parliament, the BJP has consciously refrained from rising to the UPA's provocation on, say, the arrest of former Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah and the alleged association of a senior RSS functionary in terror attacks on Muslims. It has swallowed its famed distinctiveness on a number of occasions and prevented the UPA from dividing the Opposition. Indeed, on Jammu and Kashmir, the Maoist threat and the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, it played the textbook role of a constructive opposition.
Unfortunately for it, some of the gains have been squandered by two visible shortcomings. First, the BJP's anti-corruption credentials have been brought into question by the conduct of some of its ministers in Karnataka. The party's inability to act decisively against those who have helped establish a moral equivalence with the Congress counts among its biggest failings. The Congress is bound to exploit this sooner or later.
Secondly, the BJP is constantly threatened by political derailment by an RSS which is neither fully in the political game nor completely outside it. The BJP, for example, has suffered acute embarrassment from the RSS decision to make an issue of its functionary Indresh Kumar's links with dubious elements championing retributive terror. It was left red faced by former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan's tasteless comments against Sonia Gandhi.
For the BJP, the future lies in re-forging the NDA and expanding its reach into eastern and southern India. This can only happen if it embraces a moderate, non-sectarian approach, in line with the policies of its own state governments that are doing a good job. India is yearning for a viable opposition and a wholesome government-in-waiting. The BJP can live up these expectations if it bases its politics on integrity and common sense, and consciously disavows divisive, fringe agendas. But to do so, it has to address a serious image problem: many of its top functionaries convey the impression of being outlanders, out of their depths in national politics.
A meaningful alternative to the Congress has to combine integrity with both modernity and competence. These attributes are not uniformly evident in the BJP leadership as yet.