By Swapan Dasgupta
The results of the five Assembly elections have proved to be a major disappointment to the Congress. Far from bolstering the UPA Government at the Centre, the verdict of the electorate has eroded the already fragile self-confidence of the party, more so since Uttar Pradesh delivered a crushing blow to Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive bid to legitimise his family inheritance.
Yet, the Congress isn’t the only party that should be worried by the message of the electorate. The BJP which had banked on a discernible recovery in Uttar Pradesh has reason to be worried about the possibility of the Assembly results being replicated in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. If a poor Congress performance is coupled by the BJP’s political stagnation, it would put paid to the NDA hopes of staging an unequivocal come back at the Centre.
In a cogent analysis of the UP results, BJP leader Arun Jaitley has suggested that his party lost owing to the perception that it was not in a position to emerge as the principal opponent to Mayawati. The party, he believed, was squeezed into a poor third place owing to a sufficient mass of anti-Mayawati votes gravitating to the Samajwadi Party, the principal opposition to the BSP.
Jaitley has very correctly described the phenomenon whereby the BJP won just 47 seats instead of the 75 or seats the leadership expected. Yet, his analysis doesn’t touch on the more awkward question: why, despite being 10 years in opposition, has the party failed to be perceived as a credible alternative?
This question has to be asked in conjunction with the results of Uttarakhand and Punjab. In Uttarakhand, despite a valiant rearguard battle led by Major-General B.C. Khanduri, the BJP lost a government. And in Punjab, the party’s vote share fell sharply in the urban areas. If the BJP still managed to hold on to a dozen or so seats, it was thanks to Congress rebels and some deft election management. Indeed, apart from Goa where Manohar Parikkar steered the party into its best performance ever, the only reason the BJP has to celebrate is a negative one: that the Congress did worse.
For the BJP, there are certain broad lessons from last week’s results. The first, and most obvious one, is that the party has suffered on account of its indulgence of ministers whose integrity was perceived to be suspect. Uttarakhand is a glaring example of the rot that is allowed to seep into the BJP. In this season of introspection, the party must ask itself why it allowed itself to be bulldozed into removing Khanduri in 2009 and why it did not act earlier against a disreputable administration headed by Ramesh Pokhryal. It is one thing to say that the BJP believes in collective leadership. But if the obstinacy of two or three top leaders contributes to self-destruction, does it not suggest the overall failure of leadership systems?
One of the great tests of the BJP in the coming days will lie in the appointment of its ministers in Punjab and its opposition leaders in Uttarakhand and UP. If the party persists with tired and often discredited faces, it will send out the unmistakable message that it is contemptuous of the electorate’s verdict. As the Goa results demonstrated and as Khanduri’s brave rearguard action suggested, it pays to have a leaders with impeccable records of integrity. The BJP should realise that its voters have more exacting standards for the lotus than it does for the hand.
The second lesson is linked to the shrinking social base of the party. One of the main reasons—apart from the mobilisation around Ayodhya—the BJP was able to make a big headway in the 1990s was its ability to go beyond its traditional upper caste base. In UP, the incremental support from OBCs has been eroding since Kalyan Singh’s departure. Today, the BJP is getting some OBC votes but not in sufficient numbers to complement its urban base. The decision to induct Uma Bharti to try and retrieve lost ground was a step in the right direction. However, her acceptance in the party was so incredibly grudging that her possible impact was minimised. Unless the BJP can consciously get over its savarna bias—as has happened in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat—and present a more equitable face, its stagnation is bound to persist.
Indeed, one of the features of the BJP today is its inability to be a mirror image of society. It is unlikely that the party is going to secure Muslim and Christian voters in a hurry. But it has not taken enough pro-active steps to ensure that the party represents the Hindus in totality. This is both a political and social feeling.
Sunday Pioneer, March 12, 2012