Judging by the costly but purposeless media blitz launched by the United Progressive Alliance to mark the end of the second year of its second incarnation, the Congress leadership seems hell-bent on getting over its annus horribilis. Undaunted by the ash clouds that have grounded the government, party strategists have calculated that the jailing of tainted politicians and the harsh action of the courts against errant corporates will persuade the electorate that the UPA is capable of setting in motion a process of ethical cleansing. An ambitious legislative agenda has been set for the next session of Parliament that includes a land acquisition bill, the lok pal bill and even a draconian communal violence bill.
The governments ability to restore its own credibility and inject a sense of purpose into the Congress is a possibility but is by no means a certainty. It only requires some fresh revelations on either the 2G spectrum scandal or the Commonwealth Games fiasco to upset calculations. In addition, there is always the likelihood that some of the subterranean whispers of crony capitalism could come into the open and add to the governments woes. Despite the seeming nonchalance, the government is nervous about the months preceding the Uttar Pradesh elections next year.
The only solace for a beleaguered Congress lies in the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has reinvigorated itself. The BJP had initially calculated that the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal and Kerala would put an end to all future hopes of a possible third front and contribute to greater political bipolarity: those sitting on the fence would have to choose between the UPA and the NDA.
Unfortunately for it, the BJPs pathetic performance in all the five assembly elections clearly revealed that there was little by way of an incremental vote the saffron party could bring to the table in enticing unattached regional parties to join the NDA. The Congress performed disastrously in Tamil Nadu but even that was much, much better than what the BJP could ever dream of.
In 1998, many regional parties had climbed on to the BJP bandwagon because the national momentum created by Atal Bihari Vajpayee added to the vote share of regional parties. Today, this is no longer the case. The BJP is strong in the Hindi belt, western India and Karnataka, but a non-starter in about 250 parliamentary constituencies. Most important, its inability to recover lost ground in UP has meant that the NDA, as presently constituted, will need many post-poll partners if it is to even entertain the idea of a non-Congress dispensation at the Centre in 2014. At the same time, as the Assam results so vividly demonstrated, a covert post-poll arrangement not only hands over the stability plank to the Congress but also runs the risk of losing the core vote.
The BJP, for example, performed dismally in the Barak Valley because its core Bengali Hindu vote felt that a Congress government, led by Tarun Gogoi, was better placed to meet the challenge of the Badruddin Ajmal-led Assam United Democratic Front than a BJP sitting in the Opposition. Had the party negotiated a pre-poll alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, it could at least have projected an alternative to the Congress. Fighting separately (albeit with a covert understanding with the fractious AGP), the BJP failed to reassure its traditional voters that it was a serious player. The same factors that saw a large chunk of its middle-class vote move to the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls in 2009, now worked to its disadvantage in Assam.
The lessons of the recently-concluded assembly elections are daunting for the BJP. Unless the party is able to attract more regional parties or dramatically improve its position in UP, it is guaranteed to remain in the Opposition after 2014. The viability of regional players such as J. Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik wont be compromised by their inability to be a partner in the government at the Centre; for the BJP, three consecutive election defeats will have a catastrophic effect on its morale nationally. The BJP needs the regional parties more than the other way round.
Yet, there are outstanding questions. If the BJP is of no consequence in the states where the regional parties dominate the non-Congress space, why should those parties be averse to a pre-poll alliance with an eye to power at the Centre? Why should the regional parties be wary of a mutually exploitative relationship with the BJP that protects each others turf?
The answers are not flattering to the BJP. Any national alliance with the BJP runs the real risk of the regional parties triggering a minority reaction against it without, at the same time, generating a countervailing Hindu consolidation. If the NDA, with a BJP prime ministerial candidate, does manage to include some additional regional players, the Congress is certain to play the secularism card aggressively. Where the BJP isnt a factor, Muslim votes follow one set of logic; where the BJP is relevant, the single focus is to defeat it. This is a situation that the regional parties would not like to countenance.
The BJP may live in denial of an unstated minority veto against it and its allies but it is a grim fact of life. And it can only be overcome by a counter-consolidation of Hindus, which seems a remote possibility.
There is a paradox that confronts the non-Congress and non-Left Opposition. No alternative, non-Congress dispensation at the Centre is possible without the BJP. However, the leadership of the BJP in such an alliance could dilute the unity of the public outrage against a non-performing UPA. Worse, it could inject an extraneous element such as secularism into the electoral calculus.
There is a perception in the BJP that this problem can be overcome if the party gets over its unending leadership impasse and projects a moderate, modern, Vajpayee-like face as its prime ministerial candidate. In addition, a conscious sensitivity to federal issues and advocacy of state interests in Parliament could earn the BJP brownie points in the right quarters. However, for these shifts to have a larger impact, the BJP has to be in a position to register a dramatic improvement in next years UP assembly elections. At least 30 parliamentary seats from UP and the retention of existing bases are necessary if the BJP is to aspire to overtake the Congress as the largest party in the Lok Sabha.
Minus a recovery in UP, the regional parties are unlikely to countenance any pre-poll understanding with a formation led by the BJP: the political costs of the enterprise are, as yet, not commensurate with the potential returns. However, national politics could change quite dramatically if the BJP was persuaded that the likelihood of a victory in 2014 would be greatly enhanced if the NDA was to project a non-BJP leader as its prime ministerial candidate. The experience of Bihar, where the Janata Dal (United) and BJP struck a harmonious alliance and even succeeded in winning the votes of minorities, is instructive. It could become the model for a broad front of anti-Congress impulses.
An NDA battling for federalism, integrity, harmony and good governance led by the unifying figure of Nitish Kumar is an idea whose time is fast approaching. But for this to happen, the BJP has to overcome its internal stalemate and paralysis and make an informed choice.