Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Congress-mukt Bharat that BJP wants

When Narendra Modi became BJP’s campaign committee chief three years ago, he gave a call for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat.’ Then it was at best treated as a war cry to charge up cadres and wrest power that had eluded BJP for 10 years. Recent electoral reverses in states have prompted some to object to the slogan. They said it was undemocratic to seek to kill robust contests and oppositions. But what the ruling party at the Centre seeks is its own political ascendancy: its governments in state after state. First, wiping out of Congress as a political party is not possible. Second, it is in BJP’s interest that Congress loses power but retains some of its vote.
After Modi became PM in 2014, BJP and its allies have won Haryana, Maharashtra, J&K, Jharkhand and now Assam, and made inroads in vergin territories of Bengal and Kerala. These were mostly states where BJP had direct fights with unpopular Congress regimes. But in between the Modi juggernaut had halted in Delhi because the contest was different: there was a three-term Congress government, but there also was Aam Aadmi Party with a clean slate, hungry to exploit the anti-incumbency.
Congress’ vote share in Delhi came down from 24% to 8%, and AAP’s went up to 54% from 29% for the simple reason most voters willing to ditch Congress preferred a non-BJP option because of social and religious ideologies the two old rivals are seen to represent. In Delhi’s recent municipal bypolls when Congress’ vote share went back to 24%, AAP’s came back to 29%. So in states such as Punjab where AAP has emerged as a third force, BJP would want Congress to stay alive. This will check AAP which is likely to target more and more states where BJP and Congress are in direct fights. The loss in Bihar posed different questions, forcing BJP to to go for a course correction, giving importance to local leaderships and alliances.
But Congress has been performing exactly the way BJP wants it to: retain some votes, but not enough seats. It has shown little intent to regroup and bounce bank. Even when it lost the 2014 national elections badly, it directly ruled 11 states and was part of two state governments. Today the grand old party rules just six states, one UT, and is a small part of an alliance that rules Bihar. This is less than 16% of India. Unless it dramatically improves its show in coming state polls, Congress that leads UPA in Parliament cannot claim natural leadership of any future anti-BJP front.
BJP and its partners rule more than 43% of the country’s population. This brings us to the ‘third front’ question. Non-BJP and non-Congress parties rule the rest 41% of India, but they are sharply divided. Parties like AIDMK and DMK or Left and TMC or SP and BSP are not likely to come under one umbrella to be BJP’s main challengers in 14 state battles going into the next general elections three years from now. It is in this context that the third front idea being pushed by the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar does not hold much promise. Their friend Arvind Kejriwal’s party AAP has already said it will not be part of any such front.
Kejriwal knows his history. All front governments at the Centre proved to be short-lived, toppled by Congress pull-outs. BJP also withdrew support to a government of great contradictions. History tells us any successful large alliance has to have a national player as its anchor. Some rivals may join hands, something that happened in Bihar in 2015, to check BJP in some states.
But every state election brings its own script. A Bihar-like mahagathbandhan is not possible everywhere. While 2017 has UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur going to polls, 2018 has contests lined up in Gujarat,  Karnataka,  Himachal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. Madhya Pradesh,  Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will go to polls in a final round right before 2019. In some of these states, BJP will face a large alliance of opposition parties. In others, the party would not aim to decimate Congress.
Congress can learn much from BJP that has had its share of disastrous showing. The ‘darkness did go away and the lotus bloomed’ under Vajpayee and Advani after the party got reduced to two seats in Parliament in the 1984 national elections. On the back of even more polarising campaigns under Modi, the lotus is now blossoming. Congress’ Digivijay Singh admitted a surgery was needed for his party to survive the latest poll debacles. But the question is: will the party show the courage to find the right surgeons?

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