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Friday, May 27, 2011

A fresh alternative

The BJP has to make an informed choice to reinvent itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Judging by the costly but purposeless media blitz launched by the United Progressive Alliance to mark the end of the second year of its second incarnation, the Congress leadership seems hell-bent on getting over its annus horribilis. Undaunted by the ash clouds that have grounded the government, party strategists have calculated that the jailing of 'tainted' politicians and the harsh action of the courts against errant corporates will persuade the electorate that the UPA is capable of setting in motion a process of ethical cleansing. An ambitious legislative agenda has been set for the next session of Parliament that includes a Land Acquisition Bill, the Lokpal Bill and even a draconian Communal Violence Bill.

The government's ability to restore its own credibility and inject a sense of purpose into the Congress is a possibility but is by no means a certainty. It only requires some fresh revelations on either the 2-G spectrum scandal or the Commonwealth Games fiasco to upset calculations. In addition, there is always the likelihood that some of the subterranean whispers of crony capitalism could come into the open and add to the government's woes. Despite the seeming nonchalance, the government is nervous about the months preceding the Uttar Pradesh elections next year.

The only solace for a beleaguered Congress lies in the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has reinvigorated itself. The BJP had initially calculated that the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal and Kerala would put an end to all future hopes of a possible Third Front and contribute to greater political bipolarity: those sitting on the fence would have to choose between the UPA and NDA.

Unfortunately for it, the BJP's pathetic performance in all the five Assembly elections clearly revealed that there was little by way of an incremental vote the saffron party could bring to the table in enticing unattached regional parties to join the NDA. The Congress performed disastrously in Tamil Nadu but even that was much, much better than what the BJP could ever dream of.

In 1998, many regional parties had climbed on to the BJP bandwagon because the national momentum created by Atal Behari Vajpayee added to the vote share of regional parties. Today, this is no longer the case. The BJP is strong in the Hindi belt, western India and Karnataka but a non-starter in about 250 parliamentary constituencies. Most important, its inability to recover lost ground in Uttar Pradesh has meant that the NDA, as presently constituted, will need many post-poll partners if it is to even entertain the idea of a non-Congress dispensation at the Centre in 2014. At the same time, as the Assam results so vividly demonstrated, a covert post-poll arrangement not only hands over the stability plank to the Congress but also runs the risk of losing the core vote.

The BJP, for example, performed dismally in the Barak Valley because its core Bengali Hindu vote felt that a Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi was better placed to meet the challenge of the Badruddin Ajmal-led Assam United Democratic Front than a BJP sitting in the opposition. Had the party negotiated a pre-poll alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, it could at least have projected an alternative to the Congress. Fighting separately (albeit with a covert understanding with the fractious AGP), the BJP failed to reassure its traditional voters that it was a serious player. The same factors that saw a large chunk of its middle class vote move to the Congress in the Lok Sabha poll in 2009, now worked to its disadvantage in Assam.

The lessons of the recently-concluded Assembly elections are daunting for the BJP. Unless the party is able to attract more regional parties or dramatically improve its position in Uttar Pradesh, it is guaranteed to remain in the opposition after 2014. The viability of regional players such as J. Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik won't be compromised by their inability to be a partner in the government at the Centre; for the BJP three consecutive election defeats will have a catastrophic effect on its morale nationally. The BJP needs the regional parties more than the other way round.

Yet, there are outstanding questions. If the BJP is of no consequence in the states where the regional parties dominate the non-Congress space, why should those parties be averse to a pre-poll alliance with an eye to power at the Centre? Why should the regional parties be wary of a mutually exploitative relationship with the BJP that protects each other's turf?

The answers are not flattering to the BJP. Any national alliance with the BJP runs the real risk of the regional parties triggering a minority reaction against it without, at the same time, generating a countervailing Hindu consolidation. If the NDA, with a BJP prime ministerial candidate, does manage to include some additional regional players, the Congress is certain to play the 'secularism' card aggressively. Where the BJP isn't a factor, Muslim votes follow one set of logic; where the BJP is relevant, the single focus is to defeat it. This is a situation that the regional parties would not like to countenance.

The BJP may live in denial of an unstated minority veto against it—and its allies—but it is a grim fact of life. And it can only be overcome by a counter-consolidation of Hindus which seems a remote possibility.

There is a paradox that confronts the non-Congress and non-Left opposition. No alternative, non-Congress dispensation at the Centre is possible without the BJP. However, the leadership of the BJP in such an alliance could dilute the unity of the public outrage against a non-performing UPA. Worse, it could inject an extraneous element such as secularism into the electoral calculus.

There is a perception in the BJP that this problem can be overcome if the party gets over its unending leadership impasse and projects a moderate, modern, Vajpayee-like face as its prime ministerial candidate. In addition, a conscious sensitivity to federal issues and advocacy of state interests in Parliament could earn the BJP brownie points in the right quarters. However, for these shifts to have a larger impact, the BJP has to be in a position to register a dramatic improvement in next year's Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. At least 30 parliamentary seats from Uttar Pradesh and the retention of existing bases are necessary if the BJP is to aspire to overtake the Congress as the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

Minus a recovery in Uttar Pradesh, the regional parties are unlikely to countenance any pre-poll understanding with a formation led by the BJP: the political costs of the enterprise are, as yet, not commensurate with the potential returns. However, national politics could change quite dramatically if the BJP was persuaded that the likelihood of a victory in 2014 would be greatly enhanced if the NDA was to project a non-BJP leader as its prime ministerial candidate. The experience of Bihar, where the JD(U) and BJP struck a harmonious alliance and even succeeded in winning the votes of minorities, is instructive. It could become the model for a broad front of anti-Congress impulses.

An NDA battling for federalism, integrity, harmony and good governance led by the unifying figure of Nitish Kumar is an idea whose time is fast approaching. But for this to happen, the BJP has to overcome its internal stalemate and paralysis and make an informed choice.

The Telegraph, May 27, 2011


Vinay Khaitan said...

Dear Swapan Ji,

It is the same suggestion with fresh reasons, which is being put forward by you for NDA leadership. However, I think it is dangerous and premature.

Nitish kumar as Prime ministerial Candidate would be a disaster for BJP. Ultimately, Nitish as PM may ignite the JD(U)'s performance in Other states than Bihar and may cut vote share of BJP. Don't you remember what happened to BJP/BSP alliance with Mayawati as Chief minister in UP ? Nitish is an able leader. Just like Vajpayee, he may become very popular for NDA vote base. Nitish is a smart politician, and he would try to cut BJP vote base at every chance.

Besides, what about morale of BJP cadre, who wants to see and work for a BJP PM at center? I as a BJP sympathizer won't be enthused with Non-BJP prime minister, because there is going to be definite influence of the Prime Minister in any Government. Hence BJP's clout at center would go down.
Also, if Nitish, then why not Naveen Patnaik ? There would be a galore of options. Both are performing and why should they accept any other state leader as candidate for PM? Even Chandrababu is not bad idea after all. He was very progressive.

It is a reality that Sushma swaraj is not proper candidate for PMship for BJP, despite being good orator. Only choice left for us is Narendra Modi.

It seems that obituary for Modi's Government at center is read before even birth! What do we know today about the actual voter mindset for Modi's government ? We know that people voted handsomely for Vajpayee for loksabha and BJP lost in those states where BJP got majority of votes in loksabha polls in 1998/1999. A case in point is Bihar itself. People vote for the leader too.

We need to examine Modi's charisma at least in one loksabha election. Modi is getting muslim votes now in Gujarat even(though I suspect that it wont be the case in other states). If Modi is exonerated by Supreme Court, it may create favourable environment for Modi in alliances and election.
Who are the partners with BJP, who will go away ? Shivshena, AIADMK, SAD, RLD etc. do not have problems. Only JD(U) as current partner and BJD, TDP as future partners may have problems. BJP is strong is Bihar and we have able leader there. So, JD(U) wont create a problem afterall. BJD has not shown that it has real problem with Modi. Ultimately, the Modi as extra vote puller may in fact, compensate for any possible minority desertion and may be the Uniting factor for NDA, like Vajpayee.

For a leader to be uniting factor in any dispention, the leader needs to be a Mass leader and vote puller. Only Modi has that charisma right now in NDA. No nitish or sushma can do it. It has been shown time and again in Opinion Polls. This would also enthuse BJP Cadre.

So, don't be disheartened, wait for Modi to come to fore despite objections. Let allies come on board seeing ground realities in their respective states. We may see people's approval rising after they see Modi as PM candidate which would bring allies around. But modi needs to come to center 2 years ago, just after 2012 elections in Gujarat. We need time for his support to build up at center.

Mark my words, If initial Hiccups are actually taken care of, Modi is a UNITING factor and not divisive factor for NDA.

BTW, I am from Bihar and don't want any other leader in Bihar other than Nitish.

Manoj Agarwal said...

Well, there are two points that you made in this article. 1. BJP needs to reinvent itself. 2. Nitish Kumar's time as NDA PM candidate is fast approaching. Well, nobody can dispute with the first point, but in my opinion there can't be a bigger suicidal step for BJP then agreeing for a non-BJP candidate as its PM candidate. Why should we blame BJP for lack of a principled and ideological politics if a quick shot at power, even while riding on somebody else’s shoulder is all one cares about?

First of all, one should accept that NDA doesn't stand a chance in 2014, with either a BJP or a non-BJP (NDA) PM-in-waiting unless multiple miraculous things happen simultaneously. However, just imagine the political ground BJP will loose if it decides to play the second fiddle even within NDA. In no time, we will be back to grand old days of TINA. The kind of political damage the BJP will suffer in the process will be incalculable. And if they still loose the elections (most likely scenario), BJP project would be as close as over except as a regional party in 4/5 states with 70-80 lok sabha seats.

The possibility of NDA coming to power even with Nitish (even if they manage to attract 1/2 more allies) is remote. If somebody is imagining that just with Nitish as their PM candidate, parties will start falling over each other to tie up with NDA, then I totally disagree. On the other hand, a vilification campaign to undermine Nitish's communal image is what I think more likely scenario. The so called secular image of Nitish is just the result of Nitish's apparent snub to Modi. Either you are suggesting that not only BJP becomes second-fiddle in NDA itself, it should also start distancing itself from leaders like Modi. I mean, I really don't see any other possibility. It is highly unlikely that Modi and Nitish will be campaigning hand-in-hand. If they indeed do any such thing, the vilification of Nitish will be complete and all the grand 'white umbrella' NDA under Nitish dream will go up in smoke anyway.

BJP's only chance to stay relevant is to reinvent itself (point 1). A thorough intellectual churning is what they need. Rather then sidelining leaders like Modi, they need to bring them at the centre stage. That is BJP's only chance, may in 2019 or whenever.

Arun said...

Suicide or not, the most optimistic tally for the BJP in LS falls short of 150. The only question is - will the BJP supporters help a Congress hat-trick at the Center?

The best long term prospect for the Sangh is to convert the Swadeshi Jagran Manch into a political forum and let it grow with its Gandhian economics message in eastern and southern states where the BJP is a non-entity (and maybe also in UP and Haryana at a later stage). This new party will have the advantage of not having to carry Kandhahar baggage or Gujarat riots baggage or Babri Masjid baggage.

Anonymous said...

BJP surely need to reinvent and that include raising its own leader to the level of national acceptance, rather tahn relying on its partner like LDu. nitish is good leader but he had shown his reluctance to be with bjp. hindu nationalism still hold majority of BJP votebank, that will create problem with nitish. BJP should consolidate it vote bank along with balanced approch so even muslim can also come along. i would say, its time to rebranding the hindu nationalism with flavour of nationalism replacing religion. So called BJP phobia created among muslim need to be cleared. Modi alone can get acceptance from BJP cadre nationwide, except nitish i dnt think other NDA partner have any problem with him.

sanjay said...

Most regional parties are far more organized today that they were a few decades back when BJP took the mind space as "the" alternative. Breaking new ground has become that much more difficult as BJP has learnt in recently concluded elections. BJP would do well to retain it's presence where it is in power or principal opposition. The only way to do so is through visible performance like in Bihar. The trends appears to be that 1. we seem to be heading for a greater federalism and even the so called national parties would not be much better off than a few strong regional parties. And 2. Left wing policies will remain electorally relevant in the foreseeable future, and in many, if not most states left wing parties will occupy both the ruling and the opposition space.

Manoj Agarwal said...

@sanjay, this is the mind set that Narendra Modi has challenged and challenged successfully. This was believed in 2004 when BJP had lost. Narendra Modi single handedly changed that perception and he is the one who presents the greatest challenge to this idea and that's why this display of sheer determination from statist to dislodge/vilify him by hook or by crook.