The coming elections are of crucial importance not because of what they will reveal about the Bharatiya Janata Party or the National Democratic Alliance but because of what they will reveal about the Congress. In that sense they could mark a crucial turning point. Either the Congress will no longer be a national party or it will have bought some time for itself to tackle its deeper longer term maladies but with no guarantee that it will successfully do so.
The issue can be posed simply enough. The outcome of these coming elections will give an answer to three questions. Will the Congress be able to come back to power as the hub of an alternative ruling coalition' Or will it at least improve its tally of seats from what it currently holds to around 130 or more, which would probably also mean a decline of BJP seats from 180 to around 160 or less' Or will the Congress tally remain roughly where it now is (113 seats) or even go below 100'
Should the last of these three possible scenarios emerge, then not only will the Congress not form the nucleus of an alternative ruling coalition but we can also expect the final collapse of it as a national political-electoral force.
The party will not disappear but one can fully expect it to suffer defections, crossovers by some of its pre-poll electoral allies to the BJP-led winning coalition, and even breakaways in the form of regional party formations. It is important to note that for 50 years after independence (upto 1997) every single breakaway from the Congress rapidly faded into oblivion. This was so even when such breakaways were led by leaders of great stature whose reputations were forged during the pre-independence freedom movement, such as the Congress (O) of Morarji Desai. After 1997 however, two such split-offs have stabilized themselves as regional political forces that are, moreover, not afraid to do business with the BJP. One has in mind here first the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and then the National Congress Party of Maharashtra, although the latter is currently aligned with the Congress.
Should the Congress fail in these April elections then one should not be surprised if the likes of a Digvijay Singh, an Ashok Gehlot, or others, who see little prospect of capturing the main party of the Congress, were to set up separate regional parties. After all, the principal glue that holds the Congress together is neither ideological coherence or commitment (there isn’t any) nor organizational solidity but simply the lure of governance at the Centre.
Over the last two decades and more, we have all been witness to the process of progressive ideological-political decay of the Congress. It has no stable electoral social base, having been deserted for the BJP by upper castes and Brahmins in the north, by Dalits in the north and west, and is now witnessing (as the last assembly elections in December 2003 showed) a severe erosion among central Indian adivasis. Programmatically, it follows a softer version of Hindutva and has only minor differences in regard to the BJP-NDA’s economic reforms and its alignment with the United States of America in foreign policy.
To be sure, one must not make the drastic mistake of thinking there is no qualitative difference between the Congress and the BJP. There most certainly is and this should reflect itself in the electoral choices made by those most worried about the grave peril that Indian democracy and secularism have been faced with. The Congress does not have the huge cadre base of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the cohort organizations of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. Nor does it have the same ideological commitment to bringing about a Hindu rashtra. One must distinguish between the “Hindutva-ization” of Congress policies and the behaviour and determined pursuit of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra by the sangh. But it does mean that Congress activists and members will have little difficulty in shifting towards the BJP and the NDA if circumstances change. The pragmatic search for a share in the fruits of power and the absence of serious ideological hostility to Hindutva means this prospect is very much there if the Congress does badly in the polls.
Such a development — the BJP emerging as the sole national political-electoral force and the “normalized” party of rule — carries momentous implications for the future, even if for some time its political ambitions remain disciplined by the pressures of being part of a governing coalition.
If, however, the Congress can up its tally to around 130 and the BJP suffers a fall from its present total, the situation becomes different. Most analysts, perceiving the fact that the BJP and the NDA would seem to have peaked last time in the number of seats obtained, do not see how either can improve their tally except perhaps in places like Uttar Pradesh. But any increase there, as our poll pundits would have it, must surely be compensated for by declines in the BJP-NDA tally elsewhere. It is difficult to see how the BJP can go beyond its current position. But no doubt one reason why their leaders wish to plug the “Vajpayee factor” and why Advani is also embarking on his Ayodhya-reminding rath yatra is because the BJP seeks to appeal to both “moderates” and “extremists” in the hope that this might propel the BJP beyond the 180 seat mark.
But the NDA probably has better chances of expanding than does the BJP. This is because, if the BJP does somewhat worse, as long as the Congress also does worse than before, or as badly, and the non-NDA regional parties do better, there remains the prospect of wooing some of them over after the polls to form a more formidable ruling coalition. If the relationship of forces between regional parties and the BJP shifts a little towards the former in a new NDA formation, the BJP can still take comfort in the fact that as the only national force in the ruling coalition (as the last five years have shown) it can still steer the polity in the direction it basically wants, albeit more cautiously, and with due attention paid to making local concessions.
Should the Congress achieve a total of 130-plus then with a decline of the BJP tally, this will certainly give it a temporary reprieve even if it is not able to form the government. There is then much less reason to leave the Congress or for other opposition parties to desert it. The Congress, after all, would have moved upwards from its last showing, thereby confirming its general appeal, its national character, and providing stronger promise of further advance. When, as in India, the polity has become so fragmented and segmented electorally speaking, then pendular swings in the short term between competing claimants to rule (whether coalitions or major parties) can be expected. If a Congress-led coalition triumphs, then, of course, the Congress reprieve is even stronger. But in the longer run, the crisis facing it remains. It has no alternative programmatic and ideological vision.
Becoming a rightwing but “secular” (where this only means being anti-BJP) party is not the answer. When over the next decade, the eruption against the false promise of neo-liberalism emerges — and as in Latin America, it will — the absence of forces capable of promoting a leftwing populism will allow rightwing populism to manipulate this upsurge in favour of further authoritarian involution and further consolidation of Hindutva politics.