BJP’s great gamble

Even if much of the corporate sector perceives Modi as strong, decisive and honest, many Indians see him as arguably the most-divisive and deeply-contentious political personality in modern India

Why has the Rashtriya Swayamse-vak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party taken, what would seem to many, such a big gamble by projecting Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate?

The world’s largest democracy does not have a bipolar polity like the world’s oldest democracy, America. Even if a large section within the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, believe that the right-wing, Hindu nationalist party stands to gain the most under the leadership of the Gujarat chief minister, a few questions remain unanswered.
Does this section believe that Mr Modi will be able to do without the support of coalition partners to become the Prime Minister presumably because the BJP will be able to obtain a majority (or close to a majority) in the Lok Sabha on its own? If, however, the BJP needs the support of coalition partners to form a government in New Delhi, does this section in the RSS-BJP that is promoting Mr Modi believe that the smaller parties that would gravitate towards the BJP after the results of the general elections are known would have no say whatsoever in determining who would lead the coalition? In other words, could it be that the leaders of smaller constituents of a new National Democratic Alliance coalition — minus the likes of the Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar — will not be given a choice if they want some other BJP leader, say, L.K. Advani or Sushma Swaraj, to head the coalition?
There is a third situation being envisaged, predicated on the belief that the BJP will neither be in a position to form the next government on its own nor be able to lead a coalition that will come to power. Under such circumstances, the best scenario for the BJP is that it becomes the single-largest party in the 16th Lok Sabha and lends outside support to prop up a minority government of the kind led by V.P. Singh for less than a year in 1989-90. Since such a government would necessarily be unstable and short-lived, the BJP under Mr Modi would thereafter move in for the kill. Thus, the next election would be akin to a semi-final. The final match will be the 17th general elections.
Speculating about India’s political future is a hazardous exercise. It may be a cliche but a week is a long time in politics. The Congress and the BJP, minus their coalition partners or allies, together accounted for barely half the total votes polled in each of the last five general elections.
What does one make of the current UPA minus its two largest constituents, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Trinamul Congress? Did the BJP’s bosses in Nagpur anticipate the pre-emptive move by the chief minister of Bihar to quit the NDA even before Mr Modi was formally designated as the BJP’s new torch-bearer? If they did, why did they believe the risk of the coalition imploding was worth taking?
History teaches lessons to some, not all. Who thought that the first government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee in May 1996 would last all of 13 days? Whoever dreamt in his wildest dreams that later that month H.D. Deve Gowda would become the Prime Minister of India? Certainly not Mr Deve Gowda himself, by his own admission. He acknowledged that he was the third choice, after V.P. Singh said he did not want the post as the cancer in his body was spreading and Jyoti Basu’s party, the CPI(M), committed what the late West Bengal chief minister described as a “historic blunder” by denying him the opportunity to lead the country.
Who could ever have imagined that in April 1999, the second government led by Mr Vajpayee would lose a vote of confidence in the lower House of Parliament with 543 members by a single vote? Or that the first-past-the-post-winner-takes-all form of parliamentary democracy would make Indian politics so unpredictable?
One example will suffice to illustrate the point. Between 2004 and 2009, the vote share of the Congress went up by around two per cent, bringing about a gain of 61 seats in the Lok Sabha, while the BJP’s vote share fell by nearly 3.5 per cent resulting in a loss of only 21 seats. The performance of the Congress, which had steadily declined over 25 years until the 2004 elections when it won 145 seats, improved unexpectedly in 2009. For the first time since 1991, India’s “grand old party” was able to win more than 200 Lok Sabha seats (206 to be precise). As for the BJP, whose performance had been on the rise between 1984 (when it had secured just two seats in the Lok Sabha) and 1999 (when the party won 182 seats), the number of MPs belonging to the party came down to 137 in 2004 and further to 116 in 2009.
A substantial section of the Indian media has chosen to hype the upcoming general elections as an American presidential-style contest between Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Mr Modi. Even if much of the corporate sector and a significant section of the upwardly-mobile, urban middle classes perceive Mr Modi as strong, decisive and relatively honest, many Indians — including most Muslims, accounting for a seventh of the country’s population, and quite a few “liberal” and “secular” Hindus — see him as arguably the most-divisive and deeply-contentious political personality in contemporary India. Whether his endeavours at playing a wider role in national politics outside Gujarat succeed or not remains to be seen.
Besides the Shiromani Akali Dal and both factions of the Shiv Sena which remain in the NDA, other regional parties who have in the past played ball with the country’s principal Opposition party include the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by J. Jayalalithaa (a personal friend of
Mr Modi), the Telugu Desam Party headed by N. Chandrababu Naidu, the Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik, Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati. Whereas the arithmetic of the next Lok Sabha would determine the kind of alliances that can be forged, what cannot be denied is that the regional parties listed may have to be prepared to deal with a completely new BJP which is more closely controlled than before from Nagpur.
The coming months are certain to be politically fluid and fraught with possibilities.

The writer is an educator and commentator

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