Debating India


Fable Of The Rooster

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK

Saturday 24 January 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 26 janvier 2004.

Should the BJP be so upbeat when the situation on the ground is such that it can only feel a bit better than the Congress? Updates

Ever since the beginning of this year, the BJP has been shouting from the rooftops that it is "feeling good" about the present and will "feel great" in the future. The party has been projecting a picture of absolutely supreme confidence, claiming it will cruise to victory in the upcoming general elections that will pit the charismatic Atal Behari Vajpayee against a cipher, the BJP’s new label for Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

And now that the BJP-led NDA government has initiated the process of advancing the general elections from September to April, the big question is whether the going is really so good for the BJP.

Is the party poised to improve on its 1999 haul of 182 Lok Sabha seats? Will the other NDA parties hold on to their ground in their respective states? Is there an Atal wave in the making, particularly after the saarc meet in Islamabad, that will gather momentum as the BJP heads towards

an April-May poll? Do BJP netas really have good reason to repeat ad nauseam, "from feel good to feel great"?

Certainly, the party can congratulate itself for high levels of motivation and confidence. As party president Venkaiah Naidu said at the BJP’s national executive at Hyderabad last week, there is "the joyous afterglow of our resounding victories in the recently concluded assembly elections". Having proven time and again that it has the killer instinct, highly committed cadres and an impressive propaganda-cum-election machinery, the BJP can be certain of making far fewer mistakes than the Opposition. It is a party that in the recent past has given proof of its ability to pull surprises and defy conventional wisdom.

Yet, a good hard look at the numbers and reality on the ground in many states beckons the question: where can the BJP possibly make gains? This introspection is quietly taking place in sections of the party and the Sangh parivar. The BJP had, after all, peaked in many of the states where it has a strong presence. Take Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, for example, two states where the BJP has just won the assembly polls. In 1999, the BJP had won 29 of the 40 seats in undivided Madhya Pradesh and 16 of the 25 seats in Rajasthan. Unless the Congress is completely wiped out in the Lok Sabha polls, the scope for improvement in these states is limited.

No wonder the BJP is leaving nothing to chance. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhararaje has unveiled a 100-day action plan that includes populist measures for farmers, women, government employees and Dalits. The targeted deadline: March 31. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharati is on the same track. Both are obviously hoping that the support they have garnered does not dissipate by the time the polls happen in April. Similarly, the BJP can strive for a clean sweep in Gujarat where it had won 20 of the 26 seats in 1999. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is also hoping to better its haul of 28 of the 48 seats in neighbouring Maharashtra. And though miracles can happen, the margins in all these traditional BJP bastions are more or less limited.

There are, however, two small states in which the BJP is hoping to conquer new ground. The BJP-Akali Dal alliance is expected to better its performance in Punjab where the Congress had won eight of the 13 seats in 1999. And this week the BJP decided to dump the AGP, its ally in Assam, calculating that the regional party is now a spent force in the state. In 1999, the BJP had won two of the 14 seats in Assam and come second in nine others. The party believes there is scope for improvement, though Assam’s huge Muslim population will always set limits to the BJP’s growth.

The biggest worry, however, remains Uttar Pradesh with its 80 Lok Sabha seats. In 1999, the BJP had won 29. Today, the party may just about make it to a double-digit figure.That is why the BJP is making a desperate effort to convince Kalyan Singh to return to the party fold. But party managers admit that nothing has been finalised yet.

Therefore, claims of crossing the 200-seat threshold appear unrealistic. Given the realities on the ground, the BJP would have done well if it retains the current haul of 182 seats. There is also a section in the BJP that feels that if the party does pull off the miracle of 200 seats then, immediately, pressure will mount on Vajpayee to make way for deputy prime minister L.K. Advani. Says a senior BJP minister: "Atalji is as much an NDA leader as a BJP neta. He is indispensable only as long as the BJP needs allies." Vajpayee himself would probably be happy if the BJP and the NDA allies repeat the 1999 performance.

For, in the era of coalitions Vajpayee stands head and shoulders above the next leader. The only problem is that alliances are not falling into place as smoothly as the BJP had hoped they would. Instead of gaining allies, the BJP has only lost vital partners ever since it gave signals of going in for an early general election. The process began with the desertion of the dmk, the MDMK and the PMK. They have all chosen to go with the Congress in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, chief minister J. Jayalalitha has till now ignored the BJP’s overtures, leaving it without a partner in the electorally crucial state.

Similarly, the BJP had bent over backwards to woo Sharad Pawar’s NCP in Maharashtra. But the Maratha has now made it clear that he will stick to the Congress in spite of misgivings about Sonia. Feelers had also been sent to Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti as a section of the Bihar unit of the BJP believed he would be an asset, considering the mess the Samata Party is in there. But Paswan has kept his distance. The Lok Janashakti leader, who was originally part of the NDA and was also a cabinet minister, quit around two years ago during the vote of no-confidence against the government over Gujarat. In fact, he too voted against the government. And earlier in August 2003, the BJP had parted ways with its most crucial ally, the bsp, whose leader Mayawati has now sworn vengeance against the saffron brigade.

The BJP continues to be expansive about what it calls its coalition dharma. But the truth is the NDA today is a far weaker formation than what it was some months ago. Even more worrying is the fact that the existing allies can’t perform better than they did in 1999. The tdp, for instance, which currently has 29 seats, is expected to see a sharp drop in the number of its MPs. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the bjd in Orissa too can only do worse than they did in 1999. Only the Shiv Sena appears to be in a position to marginally better its performance in Maharashtra.

The picture, therefore, is not so rosy for the BJP-led NDA. In private conversations, BJP leaders from the Hindi heartland also scoff at the "feelgood" slogan. "It is a phrase that will only be understood by the urban middle class. We can’t even translate it into Hindi-it means nothing to a large number of Indians," says a prominent BJP leader from Bihar.

The BJP has, however, calculated that both the urban and rural elite have prospered in the last five years of NDA rule. Roads and telecommunications have improved across the country, an economy of shortages is now wallowing in surplus and the purchasing power of this section has increased substantially. This middle class remains the core constituency of the BJP and all the "feelgood" hype is targeted at them.

But even Sangh parivar strategists admit that this section of society does not constitute the great Indian mass.There was a cruel irony in the fact that all these claims of a strong, prosperous and technologically advanced India were made at Hyderabad, the capital of a state where over 3,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past five years and where 1,400 daily wage-earners died of heat stroke last summer. Clearly, feelgood is a relative term.

Yet, the BJP is obviously working to a plan when it is harping on the peace and prosperity pitch. The Vajpayee versus Sonia presidential style campaign should work to the BJP’s advantage, though it would be excessive to claim that there is an Atal wave in the country.

Vajpayee may be the tallest national figure at the moment, a leader who has pulled off the remarkable feat of leading a non-Congress coalition of 23 parties for a full term. Yet, instead of uniting behind one national leader or party, the Indian polity appears more fractured than ever. For, the only certainty about Elections 2004 is that the regional and smaller parties will again hold the balance of power in their hands. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in particular could get as many as 40 seats in Uttar Pradesh, making it a key player in national politics. And if the BJP tally goes down, then the possibility of a third front too can’t be ruled out.

With so many uncertainties looming on the horizon, why did the BJP push for an early general election? Venkaiah Naidu says that "never in the past has the morale of the Congress been shattered so badly". So, though the BJP may claim that it is in a hurry to claim victory at the hustings as it is "feeling good", the truth is that it is probably just feeling better than the Congress.

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