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The BJP's `Plan B'?

Print edition : Dec 05, 2003 T+T-

Faced with the prospect of defeats and setbacks in the coming Assembly elections, the BJP is already looking to an artificial, contrived `new third front', minus the Left, to rescue it.

EVEN the harshest critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party must credit its leadership with a certain tactical shrewdness within the limits of its own politics of venality and manipulation. Thus, a mediocre leader with a shallow comprehension of global and national developments such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee can project himself as some kind of statesman. Similarly, self-styled Loh Purush Lal Krishna Advani - who has devoted a whole lifetime to opposing stridently the liberal-humanist and egalitarian content of the Nehruvian vision and socialist ideas - could lavish praise upon Nehru during his recent visit to the United States because he knew that that would go down well with his audience.

As for appropriating the plank of defending the freedom of expression in The Hindu breach-of-privilege case, the BJP remains unmatched in its craftiness. It has tried hard to erase its own profound commitment to authoritarian and illiberal ideas, to that special form of intolerance called Hindutva, as well as its many links, past and present, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa with her increasingly Hindu-communal orientation. The party, which brought the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) into existence in the teeth of concerted opposition, and which so viciously victimised Tehelka, now projects itself as a champion of freedom.

However, the BJP today faces a serious problem that has less to do with image than with reality - the likelihood of defeat or indifferent performance in at least three, if not all four, of the Hindi-speaking States where Assembly elections will be held on December 1. Most opinion polls forecast an emphatic win for the Congress(I) in Delhi and Rajasthan, and a probable victory in Chhattisgarh. According to some surveys, the situation in Madhya Pradesh is fluid but favourable to the Congress(I). Some other polls (for example, the one by the Centre for Media Studies) forecast an outcome that favours the BJP, but only by a narrow margin.

This situation in Madhya Pradesh could change significantly in the Congress(I)'s favour because the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), antagonised by the BJP's "hardball tactics" vis-a-vis Mayawati, has decided not to field candidates against the Congress(I) in as many as 70 constituencies. The BSP's vote, 6 to 10 per cent of the total, is concentrated amongst Dalits, and is highly transferable. It could make a big difference to the outcome of a close contest in Madhya Pradesh - in 1999, the Congress(I)'s and BJP's vote-shares differed by a mere 1.5 percentage points.

The BJP has very little confidence in its prospects even in Madhya Pradesh. Right until November 14, the last day for filing nominations, its chief ministerial candidate Uma Bharati was desperately searching for a second constituency from which to contest, besides Bada Malhera, where she is pitted against a strong candidate of the Communist Party of India. Bharati's fallback options were Datia and Chandala, both in the Bundelkhand region.

The BJP is on a much shakier ground in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Rajasthan, its chief ministerial aspirant Vasundhara Raje Scindia too wanted to contest from two seats, both within her existing Lok Sabha constituency. Going by numerous reports, her campaign is not doing well. She now faces the Congress(I)'s Rama Pilot, a strong opponent. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP has been unable to project a coherent image or focus on a single chief ministerial candidate (although it seems to favour the former princely Rajput ruler Dilip Singh Judev, a bigot devoted to "re-converting" Adivasis to Hinduism).

Judev is not contesting the Assembly elections. The top-most BJP leader in the fray is the tribal MLA and leader of the Opposition in the present Assembly, Nand Kumar Sai, who takes on Ajit Jogi in the Marwahi constituency. But so unsure was Sai of himself that he too wanted to contest from another constituency (Tapkara) as well. He was overruled on November 14 by the top BJP leadership, which was keen not to give the impression of weakness. It is only in Delhi that a BJP chief ministerial candidate's choice of constituency was unambiguous. But Madan Lal Khurana is unlikely to get very far against his formidable rival, Sheila Dixit.

The elections to the four States are of course more important for the Congress(I) than for the BJP. They will test whether the Congress(I) can hold on to these States that it now rules and then emerge as the principal and effective challenger to the BJP nationally. They will also test Sonia Gandhi's ability to mobilise the party and gather votes.

But the elections are by no means unimportant for the BJP. It must win in at least two of the four States if it wants to claim that it retains its dynamism and can combat the anti-incumbency disadvantage at the national level. On trial too will be Vajpayee's ability to garner votes through vigorous campaigning. He is the BJP's greatest, if not its sole major, asset.

The BJP is acutely aware of these stakes. Therefore, it is trying to forge a multi-pronged strategy, including cashing in on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress(I), focussing on specific grievances related to power shortages (in Madhya Pradesh) or onion prices, but also ethno-religious mobilisation. It has drafted Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a star campaigner in all the four States. He is scheduled to address 40 election meetings. To an extent, Judev and Bharati have a similar function.

Extremist appeals based on religious identities have their perils, but the BJP is so obsessed with averting political defeat that it does not care about the larger social dangers from its electioneering. As party president M. Venkaiah Naidu puts it: "In politics, there are no runners-up, only winners."

THE BJP is fashioning a fallback strategy or `Plan B' in case it performs badly in the Assembly elections. At the core of this seems to be a non-Congress(I), non-BJP, non-Left third front, probably constituted by formations like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), and of course the recently reborn Janata Dal (United). The Janata Dal (U)'s reconstitution took place at the BJP's behest through a merger with George Fernandes' Samata Party. Its strength (18 MPs) is deceptive. In reality, a majority of the MPs are unlikely to get re-elected. The merger's real function is to prevent defection to the Congress(I) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The BJP wants to use the Janata Dal (U) as a catalyst for an artificial Third Front.

Such a contrived Front must not confused with the United Front of 1996-98, or what could have emerged as a third force - a generally radical alternative to the Congress(I) (then in long-term decline) and the reactionary BJP. That potential third force represented stirrings from below and the self-assertion of numerous underprivileged and disenfranchised social groups. The Left's presence in it was ideologically crucial and politically indispensable. It lent it a future vision and a programmatic perspective. The front the BJP is trying to create, by contrast, has no such vision. Its principal task is to keep the Congress(I) and the Left out of power and create structures that support the BJP directly or indirectly.

The BJP reckons that the main potential members of such an artificial new third front - including the S.P., the NCP and the AIADMK - could together win 50 to 70 seats. This number is enough to influence the formation of a Central government in case neither the Congress(I) nor the BJP wins close to 180 Lok Sabha seats. This government will probably be unstable, but it will have performed the valuable function (for the BJP) of keeping the Congress(I) out of power.

This is of course a gamble. But the BJP seems to have decided to risk it. It is certainly cultivating and "softening up" Mulayam Singh Yadav through S.P. general secretary Amar Singh. Not only has Mulayam Singh Yadav refused to split the BJP's Legislature Party in Uttar Pradesh (although it is coming apart at the seams), but he has agreed to invert the normal arrangement under which the ruling coalition's nominee becomes the Assembly Speaker while the Opposition names the Deputy Speaker.

The latest news is that S.P. MLA Waqar Ahmad is about to assume charge as Deputy Speaker, the Speaker being the BJP's Kesri Nath Tripathi (whom many parties, including the Congress(I), oppose). Conventionally, the Deputy Speaker's desk is placed next to the seat of the Leader of the Opposition - in this instance, the BJP's Lalji Tandon. This might symbolically signify a form of collusion between the S.P. and the BJP!

Mulayam Singh indicated his readiness to do business with the BJP soon after he became Chief Minister. On September 25, he declared at his party's national executive in Jamshedpur that he would have no objection to the BJP if it were to drop "divisive issues" like the Ram temple, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code. The BJP itself says it is prepared to keep these out of its programme "for the time being". This is an important measure of the shift Mulayam Singh has executed even as he juggles to retain his Muslim and Yadav base.

Yet another sign of growing S.P.-BJP collusion is the creation of the Uttar Pradesh Development Council under the chairmanship of Amar Singh. This has a galaxy of industrialists led by Anil Ambani of Reliance, M.S. Banga of Hindustan Lever, Subroto Roy of Sahara, and Adi Godrej of Godrej Industries. Its first meeting announced a set of economic measures that will make any right-wing Banana Republic proud - including indiscriminate privatisation of sugar mills and other industries, and of what remains of public services. Amar Singh has now invited the BJP's Aruns (Arun Shourie and Arun Jaitley to join the Council in order to give it some more ultra-conservative free-market ballast.

The BJP has had a line of communication open with Pawar too, whose party is in an unsteady, tension-ridden coalition with the Congress(I) in Maharashtra. It is well known that the NCP did not campaign for the Congress(I) candidate in the Sholapur Lok Sabha seat recently vacated by Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, and that it backed the BJP instead. That apart, half of the NCP's MPs, in the P.A. Sangma group, are allergic to the Congress(I) and comfortable with the BJP/National Democratic Alliance. Here lies the significance of Pawar's recent statements on Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origins". Pawar hinted (with plausible deniability) that the NCP would not back the Congress(I). In less than a fortnight, he denied having said this.

As for the AIADMK, the BJP has been in dialogue with Jayalalithaa while distancing itself from the DMK - at least until The Hindu episode. Jayalalithaa is beholden to the BJP in many ways. She is the only Indian politician outside the Sangh Parivar to have supported the Ayodhya agitation and the demolition of the Babri mosque. She also rationalised the Gujarat pogrom by repeating Narendra Modi's revolting "action-reaction" formula. She has banned religious conversions and routed State nutrition programmes through Hindu temple networks.

Jayalalithaa's vindictive action against The Hindu has caused a furore and forced the BJP to back the newspaper and implicitly criticise her. The critical mood may not last long - unless the issue is further aggravated by another provocation by Jayalalithaa.

Pawar's "foreign origins" slogan may have been fired prematurely. The issue has failed to draw public attention.

The situation is fluid. But it is likely that the BJP's options will narrow - especially if it loses badly in the four Assembly elections - to a point where an artificial new third front becomes its best bet. All secular people must guard against this. The next Lok Sabha election offers the best chance to defeat the BJP and isolate the politics of communalism and right-wing cynicism. This must not be squandered away.