Sunday, May 20, 2012

Regional parties take Centre stage

By Swapan Dasgupta

In explaining his party's endorsement of PA Sangma for the post of President of India, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, has been highlighting the very limited objectives of a regional party in a State where one-third of the population is tribal.
There is, he has insisted, no need to detect a national design behind his announcement earlier this week: it is merely his party's modest bid to stress the need for a Rashtrapati from a marginalised community.
Patnaik's disclaimer of a larger political purpose need not be discounted. However, when his announcement leads to simultaneous support from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, there are reasons to believe that an apparently small gesture may have larger, albeit unintended, consequences. After all, even if Patnaik is content to see things through a Bhubaneshwar prism, there is nothing to suggest that Ms Jayalalithaa also views her endorsement of Sangma as something born out of purely local considerations.
Regardless of how the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan pans out, the joint Patnaik-Jayalalithaa initiative constitutes a significant departure from the way national politics has hitherto been playing out. For a start, it was two regional parties, each enjoying steamroller majorities in their own States, which were first off the starting block. In the past, the regional parties were happy playing the role of extras in a contest that involved the two national parties and their formal allies. On this occasion, both the Congress and the BJP have been gripped by uncertainty over who to promote as their presidential candidate. Neither has the strength and capacity to be able to exercise their preferred option, and both are reluctant to cut their losses and settle for the next best course.
For a long time, the BJP nurtured hopes of persuading former President APJ Abdul Kalam to run. There are reasons to believe that Kalam wasn't entirely averse, if the arithmetic was right. However, Sushma Swaraj's indiscretion put an end to this plan. After all, there was little chance of the Samajwadi Party endorsing a candidate whose name was first proposed by the BJP.
Ever since the Kalam option was unexpectedly snuffed out, the BJP and, for that matter, the NDA as a whole has been groping for a name that would attract wider support. Unable to hone in on a name, a section of the BJP and NDA has been hoping that the Congress nominates Pranab Mukherjee who, by virtue of his exceptional standing in the political class, can be the consensus candidate. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the Finance Minister enjoyed more support from the BJP than from within his own party. The whisper that Sonia Gandhi was somehow averse to Mukherjee made Congress loyalists wary of proffering his name openly. Ironically, the alleged scepticism of 10 Janpath only added to Mukherjee's appeal in the Opposition.
Given this backdrop, why did Patnaik and Jayalalithaa jump the gun and choose Sangma, a man whose claim was disregarded by his own party chief Sharad Pawar? I would hazard the guess that the two Chief Ministers detected the prevailing confusion in the non-Congress ranks and chose to force their hand. In the process, they have sent out a much larger message: that the initiative for both leading and organising the anti-Congress forces has passed to the emerging Federal Front.
This has implications for the BJP which has seen itself as the principal opposition to the Congress and the party most likely to gain the most from the decimation of the UPA in the coming elections. Recent events have made it quite clear that the BJP is reaching saturation point and that its ability to extend itself to areas outside its traditional strongholds is limited.
Secondly, the BJP has shown that it suffers from both incoherence and ineffectiveness at the top. Its strong regional leaders are increasingly finding the national leadership to be unresponsive to developments in the localities. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has, for all practical purpose, withdrawn his recognition of national president Nitin Gadkari. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje has shown that she will not take Delhi's insolence quietly. And BS Yeddyurappa appears to be firming up his plans to set up a regional party — a move that will set the BJP back in Karnataka by at least 20 years. The net result of these developments is that the BJP's capacity for political initiative and improvisation is becoming increasingly limited —  without some of its leading actors even being aware of it.
Finally, at a time when the national parties are in a state of crisis, occasionally verging on paralysis, the regional parties —  regardless of whether they are nominally attached to a larger coalition or unattached —  are beginning to seize the initiative. If Patnaik and Jayalalithaa or, for that matter, some other regional party, hadn't unilaterally seized the initiative, it would have set the stage for the Congress to produce a dumb rabbit out of the hat at the very last minute and benefit from the confusion on the other side. Now that has become difficult. Has Sangma's entry ensured Pranab babu's nomination?
I may be guilty of over-interpretation, but last week's developments suggest that the leadership of the anti-Congress space is passing into the hands of the regional players. The BJP will be in the supporting cast.
For the Congress, that's not good news.

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