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TWO FACES OF CHANGE
- The Congress’s decline means new positions on the other side

The paralysis of governance that began in August, 2010 with the scandals associated with the organization of the Commonwealth Games has lasted for over two years and is showing absolutely no sign of easing. On the contrary, with all the economic indices showing southward inclines, a crisis that was hitherto confined to the ruling United Progressive Alliance has spread to other sectors of national life resulting in national despondency and cynicism. The much-trumpeted ‘India story’ that aroused enormous expectations throughout the world appears to have run out of steam, if not derailed.

In parliamentary democracies, the time-tested method of breaking a big political deadlock is through a fresh election. Ironically, returning to the people in the next months for a fresh mandate does not appear to be on the agenda of either the government or the Opposition. With successive opinion polls suggesting that a snap election will produce a horribly fractured Lok Sabha, the consensus in the Indian establishment is that it is preferable to persist with a prime minister who appears to have de facto abdicated until May, 2014. The intervening 16 months, it is being hoped, will result in greater clarity over the shape of the alternative.

Of course, these calculations are premised on the fragile belief that the brinkmanship that is certain to be a recurring feature of day-to-day politics does not lead to unintended consequences. The government, it is understood, is on shaky ground and could find itself deprived of its majority abruptly.

In times like these when an incumbent regime is waiting passively for the guillotine to fall, the temptation among stake-holders is to put their weight behind an alternative. After the election of 2009, it was widely believed that the second term of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would be followed by a smooth transition of power to Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, the efforts of the Congress in the period immediately following the 2009 general election was to regain its hold in the Hindi heartland and reduce the party’s future dependence on coalition partners. However, this attempt to restore Congress dominance at an all-India level has faltered horribly and Rahul has compounded the problem by being perceived to be lacking in application and seriousness.

A similar situation had confronted India in 1996. At that time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the beneficiary of a quiet process of realignment during the two choppy years of the United Front government led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was regarded as a pariah in 1992 at the time of the Ayodhya demolition, and failed to secure any worthwhile support in 1996 (during Vajpayee’s 13-day government), was suddenly blessed with a multitude of regional parties’ support in 1998.

There is a feeling in some circles that the coming months could witness a growing momentum in favour of Narendra Modi. Since 2009, Modi has emerged as the favourite son of BJP-inclined voters. In terms of popularity, he has eclipsed all other BJP notables. Opinion polls suggest that the Gujarat chief minister has broadened his appeal considerably to embrace a vast section of urban India, the middle classes and the youth. Today, Modi’s appeal is far wider than the support for the BJP, a development that both excites the rank and file of his party and leaves a section of its leadership deeply worried.

Whether or not Modi becomes the face of the anti-Congress mobilization for the next general election will, of course, depend substantially on how he performs in the Gujarat assembly polls scheduled for later this year. If he wins conclusively, it is going to be virtually impossible for Modi-sceptics in the BJP to resist the groundswell from below.

It is interesting to note that those outside the BJP who are inimical to Modi being projected as a prime ministerial candidate believe that his rise is unstoppable. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has issued enough public warnings to the effect that he will not remain in the National Democratic Alliance in the event of the BJP endorsing Modi. At the same time, Nitish seems to simultaneously believe that the BJP leadership will not be able to stop Modi’s rise to the top. As such, he has already begun preparations for life outside the NDA.

The simplistic view is that Nitish is too committed to ‘secular’ politics to even contemplate cohabitation with a Modi-led BJP. No doubt, Nitish has compulsions similar to Mamata Banerjee. In both West Bengal and Bihar, Muslims account for more than a quarter of the electorate, and there is a political price to be paid by parties who are seen to be supportive of Modi.

For Nitish, however, there is an added dimension to his anti-Modi politics. The Janata Dal (United) in Bihar appears to have concluded that a go-it-alone strategy in today’s environment would witness interesting shifts. It is likely that the BJP will wean away the bulk of the upper castes and a smattering of backward castes from the main regional party. However, this would be more than compensated for by a general collapse of the votes which earlier went to Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. Nitish, in short, expects to recreate the social alliance that kept Lalu in power for 15 years.

An interesting facet of the calculations that are driving Nitish Kumar is the belief that by the time of the next general election, the Congress will be too discredited and demoralized to put up a worthwhile fight anywhere in India. The Bihar chief minister believes that the real challenger will be a Modi-led BJP. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Modi’s presence will galvanize the BJP throughout the Hindi heartland, not least in Uttar Pradesh.

Confronting Modi on the issue of a ‘secularism’ alliance is not something that appeals to his political opponents. This is because the Gujarat leader is certain to make ‘development’ his one and only plank and allow identity politics to play a subliminal role. Instead, what could happen is a Nitish-led initiative to forge an alliance of ‘backward’ states, particularly in eastern India. Together, such a bloc has the ability to win nearly 75 seats in the next election.

In the next few months, Nitish is planning a series of programmes centred on the demand for greater accommodation by the Centre to backward states. Whereas, Modi has been proclaiming the virtues of the ‘Gujarat model’ based on creating an environment for entrepreneurship to flower, Nitish will be highlighting the need for regional equity complemented by good governance.

At one level, these competing visions may suggest an India-Bharat tussle involving the role of the State in the development process. One will highlight the State as a supporting plank for a rule-based, transparent market economy. The other will revive the call for a redistributive Centre to facilitate lowering of regional disparities.

However, there is a point at which both the Gujarat and Bihar experiences converge: the question of federalism. From different positions, both Modi and Nitish are asking for a fundamental review of Centre-state relations and the role of the Planning Commission in the country’s economic life. Whereas Modi would want the statutory, non-discretionary transfers to the states by the finance commission to become larger, Nitish would insist on a larger equalization principle to confront backwardness. And both would be united on two points. First, that the planning process devolve to the states; and, second, that the size and scope of the Central government be reduced.

As the Congress decline gets more pronounced, there are positioning games on the other side that warrant greater attention.