Sunday, June 16, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

From the anointment of Narendra Modi in Goa and L.K. Advani’s Sunset Boulevard act in Delhi to Nitish Kumar’s notice of separation and divorce from the NDA, it has been a bit too much of a rollercoaster ride for the BJP. It is just as well that all the drama has been packed into one week of June, at least 6-7 months before the election campaign formally begins. There is nothing more disastrous for a political party than to be confronted with indigestion in the midst of an election campaign—as happened in 2009 when Naveen Patnaik parted ways during the seat-sharing talks. It is best to get over the inner rumblings before the blueprints of the campaign have been finalised.

That Advani and Nitish were party poopers and dampened the post-Goa celebratory mood in the BJP isn’t in any doubt. At the risk of floating a conspiracy theory, it can be said that the duo was acting in concert. The JD(U) was banking on Advani to keep the Gujarat Chief Minister confined to the Gir forest; and Advani in turn was leaning on Nitish and Sushma Swaraj’s personal equations with the Thackeray family to maintain his own primacy in the party. After the BJP tersely informed Advani of the difference between Formula-1 racing and a vintage car rally, Nitish was left in doubt Modi had prevailed inside the party. He was requested by those he would leave orphaned in the BJP to stick to his original December 31 deadline because Advani still commanded a majority in the BJP Parliamentary Board, but by then things had gone too far for the JD(U) to apply the brakes without completely losing face.

As it is, despite his grandstanding and his ability to retain control of the state government, Nitish remains in danger of being squeezed between a re-invigorated Lalu Yadav and a gung-ho BJP—a predicament that could even force him into an alliance with the Congress in 2014. Since the JD(U) departure from the NDA was packaged as a bout of ‘secularism’, Nitish will have to demonstrate to the community he is courting that he stands a better chance of slaying Modi than Lalu Yadav. That may only be possible if he has the Congress by his side.

That Nitish’s imminent departure from the NDA has led to some soul-searching within the BJP is also undeniable. At an over-simplistic level, the BJP is witnessing a curious battle between its heart and its head. A section of the well-established leadership who saw political power in 2014 as a low hanging fruit curse Modi for injecting new complications and making the BJP’s task challenging.

The Advani objection to the projection of Modi was centred on the belief that the sheer weight of anti-incumbency would decimate the Congress and result in the NDA emerging as the clear front-runner for power. In other words, neither the BJP nor its allies would have to do much more than get its caste sums right and work up the crowds with the same messages about corruption, economic mismanagement and the legacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In short, it would be the 2009 campaign again with, hopefully, a better outcome thanks to the extent of the UPA’s misgovernance.

The emergence of Modi and particularly the way his rise has been interpreted by a large section of people have upset those calculations. It is now clear that a conventional campaign that, at best, promises to substitute the strategic silences of the 80-year-old Manmohan Singh with the unending reminiscences of the 85-year-old Advani will not yield optimum results. Indeed, another insipid NDA campaign could even revive attractions for the Congress’ all-too-familiar strategy of sops and handouts.

For the BJP, the likely exit of the JD(U) has cleared the decks for a very new type of election campaign. Yes, the possible absence of regional allies in states other than Punjab, Maharashtra and, possibly, the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh and Assam, pose an exceptional challenge. If the general election becomes an aggregate of state elections, the BJP is unlikely to be in the driver’s seat of a new coalition government. And the impossibility of a BJP-led government being sworn in by President Pranab Mukherjee in 2014 is what the pundits and the media will hark on incessantly. Arithmetically, they will tell you, a BJP Prime Minister after the general election has been ruled out by Nitish, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy.

They may well be right. I recall in 1991, Atal Behari Vajpayee ruing that the BJP tally would be around 50 because it had no alliances. At a National Executive meeting, Kalyan Singh, the then BJP chief of Uttar Pradesh, indicated that the party’s popular vote in Uttar Pradesh would, at best, rise from nine per cent to 18 per cent. In the event, the BJP won 121 seats, including more than 50 seats from Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, had it not been for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination a day before the second phase of the three-phase poll, the BJP tally would perhaps have touched 160 seats.

The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) model that was used to forecast elections was demolished in 1991, an election where the Ayodhya issue dominated. This was entirely due to the fact that the BJP campaign was novel: it was unorthodox, strident and centred on the creation of a new India. Never before or since has a BJP campaign been so full of raw energy as it was in 1991.

The issues of the 1991 campaign have become history. Today’s India has changed far more than its politics. There is raw energy of a youthful population desperate for self-improvement and, by implication, national resurgence; and there is raw anger that periodically manifests itself in spontaneous explosions against corruption and rape. To this can be added the social churning created by upwards social mobility, urbanisation and regional pride. And, finally, there is waning faith in the ability of the existing political class to effect meaningful change.

In a nutshell, while the existing arithmetic is tilted against Modi, the emerging chemistry of politics favours an outsider who encapsulates this churning. It is Modi’s ability, as campaign chief, to harness these energies and social trends that will determine whether the enthusiasm witnessed in Goa is translated into parliamentary seats. There is no half-way house left for the BJP. To win it will have to reinvent its approach to politics. Fortunately for it, the sheer determination of its supporters to break the mould overrides the innate conservatism of its leadership. In the past week, hard decisions were forced on the party. Now it will have to take them voluntarily and with imagination. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 16, 2013

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