This article was written before the Biju Janata Dal pulled the plug on the BJP in Orissa
The kaleidoscope has always held a fascination for children. Every twist of the tube reconstitutes the coloured glass pieces within into a new geometric pattern. Indian politics seems to have had a similar quality in the last few general elections. With roughly the same number of constituents, we seem to be getting a new pattern every election. What does Election 2009 presage? There are straws in the wind suggesting that it could lead to a new model of the alliance system.
When, in 1999, the National Democratic Alliance emerged as the front-runner to form the government in New Delhi, it marked a new point of departure for India’s polity. Its position was determined by the 1998 decision of the BJP, one of the three pole political formations, decided that the only way it could form a government in New Delhi was to create a durable coalition.
In doing so, it had to self-consciously put what it had earlier proclaimed to be its defining issues on the backburner — building a Ram Mandir at the site of the razed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, scrapping of Article 370 that linked Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian union, and the introduction of a common civil code across the country.
The United Progressive Alliance’s success in 2004 was as much predicated on the strength of the coalition that it offered, as the failure of the NDA as a consequence of the Gujarat massacre and the perception that its economic policy had ignored the common man. The very concept of functioning in an alliance had been a major mental shift of gears for the Congress.
Till 2004, despite a steady decline at the polls, the Congress had insisted that it would contest the elections across the country by itself. Creating the UPA was an acknowledgement of the harsh reality that it had lost traction with voters in large parts of the country. But although the Congress had pre-poll alliances with the NCP in Maharashtra, the RJD in Bihar, JMM in Jharkhand, DMK in Tamil Nadu, the UPA was formed only after the elections.
So, in 2009, the Congress seems to be taking only one step back when it says that it will only undertake state-level alliances. This, at least, appeared to be the import of the outcome of its Working Committee meeting of January 29. Briefing the media, Janardan Dwivedi, a party spokesperson, had declared, “There will not be any coalition at the national level. But existing arrangements with various parties will continue at state levels….”
Predictably there has been a lot of kicking and screaming from allies, with the loudest sounds coming from the Nationalist Congress Party. But the other allies are quiescent, or they appear to be so.
Is there a strategic artifice in this seemingly barmy move, given the Congress’ woeful performance in the recent general elections?
A first response could well suggest that the answer is “no”. After all, neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi has given any indication of being a deep political thinker. But they do have a deep interest in the fortunes of the party which is really their family enterprise. So, this could well be their last desperate response to save the party which appears to be in a slow free-fall.
In this light, the decision represents bold forward looking thinking which has decided that for the party to continue on the same track is to invite slow, but sure, death. To reverse its decline the party has no choice but to go beyond the NDA or UPA schema.
Two principal reasons could be driving the Congress’ new approach. The first is the as-yet-unspoken belief that its fortunes are on the rise and that of its principal rival the BJP on the decline.
With a factious party and a dysfunctional agenda, the “party with a difference” is set to return to the margins of Indian politics. In this scenario, the NDA allies are ripe for the plucking. Formally, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Sharad Yadav, Om Prakash Chautala and Parkash Singh Badal remain strong votaries of the NDA, but privately, some of them quail at the idea of going into the elections with the BJP of today which seems to be inexorably drifting into the hands of Narendra Modi, away from the idea of the NDA whose éminence grise was Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The second push comes from the objective changes that have taken place in the Indian polity since 2000 — the electoral consequences of economic growth. Growth may not have benefited the poorest in the pyramid, but it did push a group of people who were poor, into the lower rungs of what can be called as the “self perceived” middle-class.
Rising incomes and sociological consequences of the spread of mobile phones and private TV has created a class of people, urban and suburban, who are now less prone to be influenced by caste or community leaders than their fathers were.
They are less ideological and more aspirational — they want better education for their children, more disposable income, better health-care and so on. Come election time, they are less inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of a party which may not have met all their expectations — though it did meet some — but looks like having a better plan to meet the remaining part. Anti-incumbency is no longer an iron law.
The Congress’ new model alliance system is based on the party’s belief that it can increase its tally in the coming general election and use the new alliance system to increase it exponentially in the succeeding elections.In other words once again become the default party in the Indian political system.
In an era where there is no ideological glue to hold up alliances, there is no reason why the Congress— a secular, centrist and “socialistic” party— cannot work out a modus vivendi with any two or three competing regional groups — say Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, or Jayalalitha and K. Karunanidhi.
With the BJP limiting its already limited appeal and, possibly, in terminal decline, the Congress believes it can offer all things to everyone — have its cake and eat it too.
Usually when something looks too good to be true, it usually is. To work this system requires a great many “ifs”, but more than that it requires deft political handling. The BJP can only provide so much help by its self-destructive ways. The Congress will have to walk its own talk on other issues be they Telengana or Mayawati.
Looked at another way, election 2009 could well be the proverbial last nail in its coffin. But there is one striking development, the hithertofore sclerotic Congress has begun to display some sign of strategic thinking and tactical agility, vital ingredients for any winner.
The article was first published in Mail Today March 4, 2009