Misreading the mandate

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party misses the real message of Verdict 2004 when it attempts to deny any credit to the Congress and attributes its defeat to local factors.

in New Delhi

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would require a greater degree of honesty than what it has displayed to understand the profound message of Verdict 2004. It tends to minimise the significance of the verdict by blaming the choice of alliance partners and the plethora of local factors that did not favour it. But a close look at the results would show that the BJP's losses are uniform. Even where the alliance did not matter, it suffered reverses, as in Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar, Uttaranchal and Delhi. Where the alliance factor played a key role, the BJP's rout appears to be complete, as in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. In Orissa, where its ally, the Biju Janata Dal, was returned to power in the Assembly elections, the BJP's tally was two less than its 1999 tally. In Chhattisgarh, where it won the December 2003 Assembly elections, it lost one seat, as compared to its total sweep of the undivided Madhya Pradesh in 1999.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sought to advance the Lok Sabha elections with the plea that its `India Shining' campaign would pay the coalition rich electoral dividends. As it ran a pan-Indian campaign at the government's cost claiming that the nation was on the move, the illogical nature of the campaign became manifest. The government's so-called achievements benefited only the rich, and the upper middle class, and these sectors did not require any advertisement campaign to be reminded about their progress during the past five years. By contrast, the "India Shining" and "Feel Good" campaigns only served to remind the vast majority of the population that was left out of the reforms process that the government's `achievements' have not reached it, and this section did not want the NDA to have another term in office.

Verdict 2004 was also a comprehensive rejection of the BJP's hidden agenda. Although many commentators saw the BJP as a party that had matured and had diluted its divisive and majoritarian agenda in order to survive in power, the electorate was apparently not convinced. The BJP, on the eve of the elections, not only renewed its promise to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya through its Vision Document but also forced the NDA to include the promise in its manifesto, as if it was no longer a contentious issue. The electorate apparently did not trust the BJP's reticence on the abolition of Article 370, which guarantees special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the enactment of a uniform civil code, over which there has been no political consensus. Despite its best efforts to woo the minorities, they remained alienated from the Vajpayee government, because of its reluctance to make the BJP in Gujarat accountable for the post-Godhra riots.

The BJP has accepted the position as the main Opposition party but not without questioning the basis of the mandate. Ever eager to spin every adversarial factor in its favour, it found interpreting the verdict a rather unpleasant exercise. "We agree the mandate was not in our favour; but it is not in favour of any other party or combination either," was BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu's first reaction to the election results.

His embarrassment was obvious. Having run a two-month-long campaign projecting Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP's biggest asset and pointing out the "absence" of a similar "tall" leader in the Opposition camp, it was difficult to admit that the electorate rejected the NDA's unique selling point. Therefore, calling the mandate a `fractured one' - as Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani had done - was the easiest thing to do in order to deny the Congress and its allies any credit.

It can be concluded that the electorate rejected not only the BJP's policies on various issues, but its claims to having the ability to provide a stable government under the leadership of Vajpayee. But for BJP leaders, any such interpretation of the mandate is anathema. Advani reasoned at a farewell tea-party he hosted for journalists at his residence on May 14: "If one looks at the results in totality, the BJP and the Congress are almost equal now." He said the results reinforced a "decade-old emerging bipolar reality".

No doubt, between the BJP's tally of 138 seats in the 14th Lok Sabha and the Congress' 145, there is a difference of just seven seats. Critics also point out that the Congress' tally stands closer to what it was in 1996, when it won 140 seats. At that time, it was believed that the ruling Congress, having lost its strength in the previous Lok Sabha, could not claim to have won the mandate. Hence, no one considered the Congress a serious contender for office.

Ironically, in 1996, the BJP's strength was much higher than what it is now: 161. Claiming to have won the people's mandate, Vajpayee accepted the President's invitation to form the government in 1996, but quit office within 13 days of being in power, after having failed to muster enough support to win the confidence vote. Both in the 1998 and 1999 elections, the BJP won about 20 seats more than what it secured in 1996, and qualified for the mandate because it could muster sufficient support from its allies.

As BJP leaders are ready to admit, it was the BJP's failure to sustain its erstwhile alliances and build new ones that caused the debacle. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP had no option but to ally with the terribly unpopular All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), following the desertion of its erstwhile allies, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The BJP needs to ask itself why these Tamil Nadu parties quit the NDA. They quit on their own, in view of the NDA's poor electoral prospects in Tamil Nadu, but the BJP was equally responsible for driving them away.

The immediate cause of the DMK's departure was Venkaiah Naidu's comment that the BJP's allies had no business to protest against the Central government's policies, while being part of the NDA. The DMK had staged a protest against the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) under which MDMK leader Vaiko was arrested.

Such a comment would have been unthinkable from Venkaiah Naidu, say, in 2002, when the allies felt free to criticise the BJP for its failure to act against the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat for the Godhra riots. The BJP then needed the allies' support not only for its continuance in office at the Centre but to blunt the Opposition's demand for Modi's ouster. As the Lok Sabha elections approached, the BJP was at the height of its `India Shining' campaign, and the extravagant claims and the hype it generated made the BJP over-confident.

The National Conference, Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janashakthi Party, the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana, the Asom Gana Parishad, all quit the NDA for one reason or the other, or the BJP avoided any tie-up with them on the misguided advice of its State units. No wonder the BJP suffered a rout in Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Haryana, and Assam.

True, some of the allies such as the Trinamul Congress had quit the NDA and later returned to its fold, only to find that they were not treated with honour. This hardly helped to cement the alliance, especially in West Bengal, where the Trinamul Congress and the BJP equally suffered losses. In Jharkhand, the BJP's failure to strike an alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha helped the Congress rope in the JMM and make electoral gains.

The Telugu Desam Party's rout in Andhra Pradesh and the BJP's own reverses in Gujarat may have nothing to do with each other, but it is possible to find a common theme in these. The TDP chose to support the NDA from outside, and steadfastly resisted overtures to join the Vajpayee government, with the hope that its stand would help to gain the support of minorities. For the record, the TDP opposed the continuance of the Narendra Modi government after the riots and hugely embarrassed the BJP during its National Executive meeting in Goa in 2002 when TDP chief N. Chandrababu Naidu made a public demand to replace Modi. The BJP not only ignored his demand but enjoyed Naidu's support during the entire term of the 13th Lok Sabha.

In Gujarat, the BJP takes comfort from the fact that its tally is higher than that of the Congress. It got 14 seats, as compared to the Congress' 12. But the fact that the BJP won five seats fewer than what it secured in 1999 was enough to initiate a debate within the party on the direction it should take now. Both the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have interpreted the BJP's debacle as the voters' rejection of its dilution of the Hindutva agenda in favour of issues of development and governance. In Gujarat, they point out, RSS-VHP volunteers avoided campaigning for the BJP.

However, the RSS-VHP's reasoning is hardly convincing if one considers the fact that Narenda Modi, as the chief campaigner in the State, was the symbol of Hindu consolidation in the recent past. Vajpayee avoided campaigning in Gujarat simply because the BJP felt `Moditva' would be sufficient to sweep the elections. Therefore, if Hindutva in the manner practised by Modi did not help the party, how could it have helped it elsewhere in the country? Just as the Ayodhya issue began to pay diminishing returns to the BJP in the post-demolition phase, the Gujarat riots and its aftermath have exposed the true face of the Modi government.

Despite this realisation, the BJP is unwilling to consider the Gujarat verdict an expression of a vote of no-confidence against the Modi government. BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan said: "The Supreme Court's strictures in the [Best Bakery] case may have come at the most inappropriate time for us, but there is no question of replacing Modi on this ground alone."

Modi's continuance in office despite the Supreme Court's indictment seems to have influenced Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, the BJP's effort to woo the minority community in the Hindi heartland is seen as a factor that alienated its upper-caste support base.

The BJP has been experimenting with the use of Hindutva in every election in various degrees. It has found that on balance it would be in the party's interest to play down the religious card during elections, when issues of governance dominate.

The BJP is most likely to use Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin as an issue involving Indian nationalism and culture. It finds the issue more potent than the other issues of Hindutva. The party's Rajya Sabha member Sushma Swaraj and her husband Swaraj Kaushal, also a Rajya Sabha member belonging to Haryana Vikas Party, have threatened to resign their memberships if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister. They said they would not step inside Parliament House as long as Sonia Gandhi held the post. The BJP endorsed their decision, saying it reflected the sentiments of millions of Indians. Sushma Swaraj even indicated that she would don white robes and tonsure her head from the day Sonia Gandhi was sworn in Prime Minister.

The RSS- BJP's overt support to her illegitimate demand only exposed its contempt for parliamentary norms and practices. Both Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati and former BJP general secretary Govindacharya, appealed to the Congress and its allies to stop Sonia Gandhi from becoming Prime Minister and choose any other `Indian' instead. Govindacharya launched the Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan (National Self-Respect Movement) to mobilise opposition to Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister, which in his view amounted to "cultural suicide".

Clearly, Govindacharya's return to active politics, close on the heels of Vajpayee's resignation as Prime Minister, signifies that the BJP may no longer find virtue in moderation as a political strategy. As the second-line leaders within the BJP vied with one another to seize the opportunity in opposing Sonia Gandhi, the BJP's senior leaders even considered the option of boycotting her swearing-in ceremony to register their protest. The NDA decided to boycott the ceremony, even while allowing Vajpayee to attend it as part of tradition. However, collective boycott of her government in Parliament and outside would mean political suicide, the BJP leaders feel.

While launching the attack against Sonia Gandhi albeit under intense pressure from the Sangh Parivar, the BJP leaders point out that the Congress had not projected Sonia Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate because it knew that the electorate would not accept her. In fact, the Congress did not feel the need to project Sonia Gandhi, because it felt that it would be stating the obvious.

On the contrary, it could be said that there were several leaders within the BJP who sought to neutralise Vajpayee's charisma. Advani's 33-day Bharat Uday Yatra during the election campaign has already come under attack for diffusing the party's campaign. Advani's yatra took a huge chunk of the party's resources but hardly helped to consolidate the party's votes in the Hindi heartland. Advani, it is pointed out, not only forced Vajpayee to opt for early elections but indulged in a personal promotion campaign in the form of the rath yatra.

Whatever the truth, there is a feeling that Vajpayee should have been allowed by the BJP to complete his full term and contribute to the peace process between India and Pakistan. Early elections deprived him of any credit that would have been due to him. "My party and alliance may have lost, but India has won," Vajpayee told the nation in a televised address soon after the President accepted his resignation. As he bid goodbye to the nation detailing his achievements in office, Vajpayee was careful not to dwell on the reasons for the debacle. However, behind his reticence, a tinge of sadness was apparent.

The BJP used to claim that the party had several second-line leaders who could organise its election campaign across the nation much more effectively than the Congress, which depended on one individual, Sonia Gandhi. Whereas security concerns prevented Vajpayee from covering much distance, Sonia Gandhi had no such constraints. The BJP's second-line leaders, who `carpet-bombed' the entire nation simultaneously during the campaign with each leader visiting different areas, found themselves no match to Sonia Gandhi, with her unique campaign skills.

With inputs from Siddharth Narrain
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