The new year, 2004, will witness the fourth consecutive general elections in which Atal Bihari Vajpayee will lead the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies into battle. No former Indian prime minister, save for Indira, the original Mrs Gandhi, has done so. Of course, there were three Lok Sabha polls in quick succession between 1996 and 1999. But this will be a poll with a difference, in more ways than one.
The National Democratic Alliance will have completed, or almost completed, a full term in office. The unlikely gaggle of two dozen allies, sans a few that have jumped ship, has held together. The all-important foreign policy issue of the last polls was Kargil, a short war that worked in the ruling coalition’s favour. This time, it appears the peace pipe will replace the Kalashnikov and the diplomatic acumen of the prime minister will be the leitmotif of the alliance.
“First in war and first in peace” can go down well with the electorate. Foreign policy issues have deep domestic implications. The NDA will stress the holding of the first free, fair and open elections in Jammu and Kashmir since 1977. The ceasefire on the border and the start of a dialogue with the Hurriyat will showcase the claim that the BJP in power is pragmatic and willing to go further than previous regimes were, in the search for peace.
Note also that this is the first government to parley on Indian soil with the leading secessionist rebels of them all, Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Swu of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim. The gains via cooperation with Bhutan, vis-á-vis the United Liberation Front of Asom and other secessionist groups in the North-east, also indicate a deep engagement with the region.
Yet it is domestic issues which will dominate. Here, the contrast with the earlier poll campaigns of the BJP is striking. Even in Uttar Pradesh in early 2002, not to mention Gujarat, Hindutva was very much in the forefront. True, these were states where allies hardly mattered and the party could pull in the combined forces of the sadhus, sants and mahants who are so critical to its mobilization strategies. But in late 2003, Hindutva, though never absent, was in the background of the poll campaigns in the four Hindi-belt states.
This will set the keynote for 2004. All parties, even ideologically aligned formations like the BJP, do change tack with the wind. The appeal to the Ram temple has waned with the times in north India as caste-based identities have become far more deep-rooted, especially so in the valley of the Ganges.
Over time, the realization that allies will not play ball on the issue has also made the chief proponent of the issue, L.K. Advani, speak the language of compromise and negotiation, arbitration and settlement, that he once associated with his allegedly “pseudo-secular” opponents.
Attendant on this is the core shift in the polity that is working in the party’s favour. Memories of the Gandhi family in office and of its undoubted achievements hold little appeal for a whole new generation of Indians. Indira Gandhi was assassinated almost two decades ago; Rajiv Gandhi bowed out of office in late 1989. Even P.V. Narasimha Rao’s premiership came to an end eight long years ago.
With time, there is a new polity in place, in which the Congress seems to be the party of yesteryear, unable to reinvent itself. It is not able to speak out for the under classes strongly enough to woo them away from smaller, rival formations. Nor is the vocal and growing middle class enamoured of what the party old guard stands for. This crisis of direction, indeed of identity, of the Congress has been central to Vajpayee’s own strategy.
Without in any way giving way on its core ideology, the BJP has stolen the clothes of its rivals. Where Indira Gandhi had Pokhran 1974, Vajpayee has his May 1998. Kargil supplants the Bangladesh war in national memory, a process aided by 24-hour television channels.
Nor have the non-Congress parties been spared. The logic of federalism underlined the BJP’s opposition to the Congress demand to dismiss the Karunanidhi ministry in Tamil Nadu in 1997. Most striking of all have been the adoption of reservation and the expansion of the list of other backward classes in 1999, which even brought the Jats into the ambit of positive discrimination. The same Arun Shourie who breathed fire against V.P. Singh in 1990 now is party to wider reservations.
On a positive note, and this is for the polity as a whole, it will not be the rhetoric of a Mandal or a mandir that will dominate the headlines. Rather, the rulers will point to the achievements in governance, especially the up-turn in the economy.
Yet it would be a repeat of the historic weakness of the polity over 50 years were there to be no serious, determined critique of Vajpayee on what looks destined to be a home run for the NDA. The positional and logistical factors all favour the NDA. Its alliances have held, by and large, and there are replacements available where some like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are on the way out.
But the polity requires a check for at least three reasons. When it suits the party, and even Vajpayee can do little at such times, it can and will play the Hindutva card. It did so in Gujarat and not so long ago during the rath yatra of 1990. Such actions will not only multiply insecurity for all, but they will also undermine the rule of law, a development that will have long-term negative consequences. The need for a strong and principled opposition to such actions is more acute than ever before. In the absence of such a rearguard action from within the political class, one has to make do with the brave and determined efforts of the judiciary, the press and citizens’ groups.
Second, the BJP, despite its federalist posturing, is very much a centralizing force. The appeal of Article 356, for instance, will grow once the party gets ahead of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha which will happen in August of the new year. How far the regional groups within the NDA will be able to resist such trends will be worth watching.
Third and finally, there are a variety of ways in which the retreat of the government from regulatory functions has to be supplemented and accompanied by an expansion in welfare and livelihood functions. It is extraordinary that save for the president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, no figure of note, at least not from the Congress, has focussed on the decline in job generation and the increase in joblessness. Only a strong opposition can keep the government on its toes and push for strong public action.
The year, 2004, will probably see the NDA move from strength to dominance. How its complexion will change will play a larger role in determining the future course of action of the BJP. The latter in turn will be on test to see whether its moderation is a posture or a genuine change of heart.