Debating India

BJP is in no position to head a coalition

Thursday 4 January 2007, by NEHRU*Arun

We are going into election season and there are several political questions which need clarification for the future. I think it is time to reflect on the emerging patterns in terms of coalition politics, as these let us know a lot about the trends on the political fortunes of the major contenders along with leadership patterns. Little happens in politics according to a plan (politics is very similar to the stock market), but it is interesting to see the changing equations as we peep into the future. The first thing we should accept is the fact that with time (every decade) a set of leaders fades into the sunset and a new set of leaders emerges and this has nothing to do with success or failure, but is essentially related to fitness and ability to weather the rigours of an 18-hour workday with very few vacations.

We often talk of "collective" leadership but on a practical level, and this is applicable to both national and regional parties, the role played by the individual very often makes the difference between victory and defeat. The dynastic virus affects almost all parties besides the Left, and we will discuss the future taking this factor into consideration.

The Congress Party has Sonia Gandhi. There are few who would dispute her authority publicly. Privately, most are critical of her. The succession for the future is clearly in favour of Rahul Gandhi, and in dynastic terms, other members of the family would follow, and while talent in the party exists in abundance they have no chance. The Congress is no longer in the majority syndrome as neither Sonia nor Rahul, singly or jointly, can tip the balance between victory and defeat by political charisma and ability. Both continue to read speeches. But in a coalition formation for a national party, they have little to do (the best thing is to do nothing to disturb the allies), and will lead the coalition as long as they can win in excess of 125 seats. And this in the current situation will not be difficult.

The complication can come if the allies consolidate into a single bloc, but this will only affect the position of the Prime Minister. And since neither is a candidate in the immediate future, this will not be a problem. Rahul Gandhi has yet to fight his political battles and we wish him well. There is no substitute for public acceptance and Rahul Gandhi will have his opportunity in the three state elections in the next few months. Security considerations are relevant as we have increased criminality in politics (Uttar Pradesh is as bad as Bihar). Clearly, leadership is established by your ability to do political battle in adverse conditions. The cheerleaders and the family retainers can arrange for favourable public relations and media coverage in select newspapers and magazines, but this does not help in the election arena. The Congress, despite the anti-incumbency trends in Uttaranchal and Punjab, two states it can lose, and despite having a marginal presence in UP, will retain its position within the coalition. Internally, it has few problems as it has a supreme leader and the succession issue is clear, and it has the political muscle to take care of the situation. The time factor is also favourable for the next decade.

The BJP continues to suffer from the defeat in 2004, and also suffers from the time factor, which is not in the party’s favour. And clearly, a new leadership has to emerge for the future. Unless this happens, the current confusion will prevail. The BJP, after fifty years of being in opposition, had five years of governance. The subsequent defeat has not been easy for many to adjust to the political reality. Atal Behari Vajpayee commands great respect, but at 82 years cannot battle for the next decade, neither can L.K. Advani. As things stand, the leader with a following for the future is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. The BJP may well shrink between 80 to 100 seats and will only revive if it functions as a team, and this has not happened. There is no shortage of talent and Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, Arun Jaitly and Rajnath Singh - to name a few - all rank with the best. But sustained governance goes beyond individual brilliance. The fact is that sometimes the concept of collective leadership becomes an excuse for collective confusion. The BJP should win Uttaranchal if the trends are right, but it can lose in the state by allowing internal dissent to fester and by letting the RSS interfere in the election process. Things have changed and Uttaranchal is a state on the move and a new approach is necessary. Maj. Gen. Khanduri was a brilliant Cabinet minister. He has a very good image in terms of integrity and seems to be the logical choice, but will the BJP leadership with its past trends look at the future? Punjab is also difficult as the new leaders ignore the old, and clearly, in all this, hopefully Rajnath Singh will have the final authority to take the right decisions. The BJP is not in a position to head a future coalition, but can become a balancing force in many states.

The regional forces require a different article and I will do this next week in some detail. The important thing to remember is that in the current Parliament, the Congress and BJP have 260 seats, and this number will not change dramatically in the next election. The Congress’ number of seats might increase, and the BJP’s might dip. And the others will have 270 plus seats! There will be many new alliances in the future, and coalition governance has to reconcile with power equations in the states, and there are some allies who can dramatically change the numbers in future equations. After all, numbers, rather than ideology, determine political stances. Politics rarely takes a vacation and nothing can be taken for granted as we look towards the future.

Arun Nehru is a former Union minister

See online : The Asian Age

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