Sunday, February 19, 2012

Naveen hints at a new alignment

By Swapan Dasgupta

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not known to be demonstrative. Low key and media shy, he is not careful to not say a word more than is strictly necessary. Even after three successive election victories, he remains an unknown entity to the political world outside Odisha.

Under the circumstances, Patnaik’s decision to be media-friendly last Friday to articulate his opposition to the National Counter-Terrorism Centre must be taken with exceptional seriousness. It is not merely that Patnaik was uncharacteristically loquacious and thoroughly enjoying his sharp attack on the UPA Government’s “arrogance” in not consulting the states, his intervention seemed well coordinated with the opposition expressed by Mamata Banerjee, J.Jayalalthaa and Chandrababu Naidu. It almost seemed that these non-UPA, non-NDA chief ministers and leaders had appointed Patnaik their spokesperson for taking forward the attack on the Centre for its violation of the federal spirit of the Constitution. Indeed, when directly asked by Times Now about his intervention signalling the beginning of a new grouping separate from the UPA and NDA, Patnaik indicated that it was a good idea.

Before rushing to any premature speculation about another Third Front that will replicate the United Front which emerged between 1996 and 1998, it may be instructive to look at the ground realities. Apart from Mamata who is in alliance with the Congress and whose principal opponent is the CPI(M), the others are in direct competition with either the Congress or a UPA partner. The BJP is not a major factor in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the non-Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. In Orissa, the BJP has a foothold in western Orissa but, as the 2009 election indicated, it is still not in a position to translate its support into seats without an alliance with the BJD.

With the BJP showing little signs of any meaningful progress in the four states, it stands to reason that the principal opponent of these regional players—who between them have the potential of winning anything between 80 and 100 seats in a future Lok Sabha election—is the Congress. The BJP may be a vocal opponent of Patnaik in Odisha but overall, it has little stake in these four states. The NDA tally in these four states in 2009 was zero.  

This has implications for the future. If the decline of the Congress witnessed in the municipal elections of Maharashtra represent a “national mood”, as suggested by Sushma Swaraj, it stands to reason that the regional grouping would be more inclined to opt for the NDA than the UPA in a post-2014 scenario.

Between 1998 and 1999, many of these regional players joined the NDA (or, in the case of the TDP, entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP) for one simple reason: the BJP under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee was in a position to supplement the existing support of these parties. The BJP, at that time, contributed to a significant value addition.

Tragically for the BJP this is no longer the case. Unless the ongoing Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh indicates that the BJP has reversed its steady decline, there is no earthly reason why these regional players will be inclined to enter into a formal relationship with the NDA. Nitish Kumar, a leader who could have associated with the regional bloc, remains with the NDA because an alliance with BJP yields electoral returns in Bihar. Unless the BJP can demonstrate that it counts in the four states, the prospect of any pre-poll alliance with the BJP in 2014 seems remote. In the case of Mamata, operating in a state where the Muslim electorate amounts to nearly 30 per cent, even the hint of any covert association with the BJP carries a grave risk.

It is always hazardous to forecast political developments. However, at the risk of being proven wrong, certain initial conclusions seem unavoidable. First, it is unlikely that the NDA will expand beyond its present strength. This implies that unless the BJP stages a dramatic recovery in Uttar Pradesh, the most that the NDA can hope for in 2014 is anything between 175 and 190 seats. This is likely to make it the biggest bloc in the Lok Sabha but will leave it well short of a majority. It will need the regional bloc to form a government.

Secondly, the question arises: on whose terms will such a government be formed. The NDA contains the Janata Dal (U) which should register a good performance in Bihar. Indeed, either in the form of Nitish Kumar or Sharad Yadav who is the convenor of the NDA, the NDA has an entry point into the regional bloc. But what will be terms of a settlement? Will the BJP stay out of the government to give the proverbial ‘outside support’? Or, will any settlement be thwarted if the BJP insists on having its own Prime Minister, as behoves the leader of the largest party? Alternatively, can the BJP throw up a leader who is acceptable to both the party and the regional leaders?

And, finally, depending on the outcome, what if the regional bloc ups the stakes and demands its own Prime Minister?

Consider all these possibilities and you will realise that Patnaik may have been doing more than having a ball at the expense of the media last Friday.

Sunday Pioneer, February 19, 2012 

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