As a city of movers, shakers and fixers, Delhi is blessed with a sensitive antenna. For the past fortnight or so, those who make it their business to monitor such things have been reporting a new trend: the revival of interest in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even before the popular preferences in the Punjab and Uttarakhand assembly elections were known, BJP stalwarts detected an improvement in their own social standing in the capital. People accustomed to being discreetly shunned since May 2004 found that their pariah status was purely a function of expediency. The great Indian hedging game has returned with a vengeance.
Since the last quarter of 2006, things have not been going too well for the Congress. First, there was the party’s indifferent performance in the municipal polls in Uttar Pradesh and the corresponding good showing of the BJP. It was taken as a sign that the saffron party was back in business in the Hindi heartland. Second, contrary to the wishes of the editorial and non-voting classes, an ailing Shiv Sena and a dispirited BJP narrowly held on to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. The Congress, which swept urban Maharashtra in May 2004, performed disastrously in Pune and Nagpur as well. Finally, in both Punjab and Uttarakhand, the Congress found that it was the BJP’s resounding win in the urban areas which made the crucial difference between retaining power and gracing the Opposition benches. In Punjab, the BJP, hitherto taunted for being a party of the Hindu traders, won 19 of the 23 seats it contested. It would have won another seat had the communist vote in Amritsar not collapsed so dramatically, thereby benefiting the Congress.
Is the BJP on a great comeback trail, at least in urban India' With municipal elections scheduled in Delhi later this month and assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in April and May, the Congress is haunted by the prospect of a resurgent BJP. If, on top of its recent successes, the BJP recovers control of the Delhi local body and is seen to be on the ascendant in India’s largest state — no one wants to hazard a guess on the outcome of multi-cornered contests in Uttar Pradesh — it is bound to have a multiplier effect. For one, it will have a nominal bearing on the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, both due in the latter part of this year. More important, it is certain to re-galvanize the National Democratic Alliance.
Since the 2004 general election, the NDA has existed as a tattered remnant of its old self. Within a few months of losing power at the Centre, the Telugu Desam Party (which was never formally in the NDA) decided to go its own way. This was followed by the BJP unilaterally breaking off relations with J. Jayalalithaa after the arrest of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi on a murder charge. Owing to the unwarranted cockiness of its local unit, the BJP also failed to stitch up an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad for the 2005 Assam assembly election — a development which helped the Congress in the Brahmaputra Valley.
By 2005, confronted with internal convulsions, the BJP was down to the core and fast losing important incremental support in the states, particularly southern India. It is to the credit of the BJP that it disregarded its Hindu hotheads and chose to persevere with the NDA. This paid handsome dividends in Bihar and has now proved crucial for the Akali Dal in Punjab. In other words, there is now sufficient meat in the NDA for it to both keep the constituent units together and begin the process of accretion. For the moment, only the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti appears to be ready to switch allegiance from the United Progressive Alliance. However, if the BJP firms up its urban base, regional parties such as the Haryana Lok Dal of Om Prakash Chauthala may rediscover the virtues of being part of a national alliance. The NDA still has yawning gaps in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, but it is at least beginning to look like a credible alternative formation to the UPA.
Yet, firming up the NDA alone will not necessarily add to the BJP’s tally. Prior to the next Lok Sabha election, the BJP will have to confront the anti-incumbency against its own state governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. The BJP’s success in its strongholds will depend on its success in projecting national issues over local themes.
It is still too early to determine the issues on which the 2009 general election (assuming there is no snap poll) will be fought. All early indications suggest that assertive Hindutva will not be the central plank of the BJP. Despite the growing grip of the RSS on the BJP organization, there is a belief in the entire parivar that it is important to regain power at the Centre rather than score robust ideological points. In the popular perception, Narendra Modi remains the foremost Hindutva mascot but even he will be fighting the Gujarat assembly election on the twin planks of development and Gujarati pride; “secular” issues such as the plight of dispossessed Muslims will be left to the Congress.
This is, of course, not to suggest that the BJP will focus only on bread-and-butter themes such as inflation and agricultural indebtedness — useful themes to whip up anti-incumbency. There will be a subterranean Hindu card played. Yet, ironically, Hindu mobilization will be on issues determined by the UPA: the government’s seeming indifference to the jihadi terrorist threat and its unabashed bid to create a sectarian Muslim constituency. Uttar Pradesh will be the testing ground for this approach — it may not remain all that subtle if Mulayam Singh Yadav tries to outdo the Congress in pandering to Muslim sectarianism. The massive year-long programmes by the RSS on the occasion of M.S. Golwalkar’s birth centenary have already set in motion a silent Hindu consolidation at the village and small town level. The BJP will try to take advantage of this, without jeopardizing its larger alliance with regional parties.
This, of course, leads to the contentious issue of leadership. Will the BJP project a prospective prime ministerial candidate' From 1996 to 2004, there was no dispute over Atal Bihari Vajpayee, not least because he facilitated an incremental vote beyond the committed. The present thinking in the BJP and RSS is to persist with Vajpayee (despite his advanced years) as the nominal leader and have L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi play important but different supporting roles. Vajpayee’s leadership will also set the tone for a more sedate campaign by the NDA — one that concentrates exclusively on development and anti-incumbency. The ideological evangelism which marked the BJP campaign in the 1991 general election and the 2002 Gujarat assembly election may well be missing in action unless a cataclysmic event transforms ordinary disquiet into burning anger.
The Indian electorate has been compared to a restless traveller who tosses from one side to another in the hope of catching some sleep. If that analogy is correct, it follows that adventurism and shrillness are no longer at a premium. The experience of power has proved a great leveller and there is a great disinclination on the part of the political class to bank on revolutionary change. The seamless shift from one regime to another possibly signals the end of idealism in politics, but it also suggests that stodgy parliamentary democracy has struck deep roots in the Indian soil.