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A SETBACK FOR THE BJP

Print edition : Mar 04, 2000 T+T-

The overall message from the results of the Assembly elections in four States is that the BJP's political influence and standing, even vis-a-vis its own allies, is eroding rapidly.

THE Assembly elections of February 2000 were meant to put the seal on the Bharatiya Janata Party's new status as the central pillar of the Indian polity, but they have not gone according to script. The debacle of the Congress(I) was entirely foreseen. Bu t apart from the evident fact that the principal loser is the Congress(I), which has been voted out of power in Orissa and reduced to a marginal status in both Bihar and Haryana, the headline news about February 2000 is that the BJP has suffered a seriou s setback. It has been undone in both Haryana and Orissa by some subtle tactical manoeuvres on the part of its electoral allies. And the big prize of Bihar has remained elusive.

It is not unlikely that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will stake a claim to forming a government in Bihar. But the odds it faces are already apparent in the ceding of the leadership position to Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party. Being a politic ian of less ideological rigidity and greater pragmatism than the average BJP adherent, he is expected to be able to attract support in sufficient numbers to bridge the NDA's numerical deficit in the Assembly. But even for him, the battle is a difficult o ne.

Bihar represents a clear setback for the BJP-led alliance. Its implications would include a heightened degree of discord among the partners. An initial phase of acrimony was temporarily submerged as the allies reluctantly agreed to Union Home Minister L. K. Advani's proposal on the sharing of seats. The expectation of a sweeping victory - endorsed virtually unanimously by opinion polls of diverse stripe - kept the NDA in a buoyant state all through the election campaign. Now all the bottled-up animositie s are likely to surface again as the "blame game" within the chastened alliance gathers momentum.

Apart from the Samata Party, which has shown a remarkable inability to convert contests into seats won, the worst record within the NDA belongs to the BJP. In Haryana, the party won a mere six of the 28 seats it contested - a paltry record by any standa rds, especially when viewed against the 47 seats won (of 61 seats contested) by its ally, the Indian National Lok Dal.

The reasons are evident. Om Prakash Chautala of the INLD would like to have the BJP as an electoral ally, but not as a partner in office. He is not averse to utilising the BJP's popular vote base to his own advantage, but would not like his own constitue ncy to commit its vote to the BJP. Naively assuming that its new avatar as a pragmatic party of governance has dissolved earlier apprehensions about its true character, the BJP transferred its vote to Chautala. But the INLD supremo did not recipro cate and succeeded in reducing the BJP to a marginal presence in Haryana.

A roughly similar outcome is apparent in Orissa. The BJP won 38 of the 63 seats it contested, while its ally, the Biju Janata Dal, won 68 of 84. The BJD cannot form a government on its own and undoubtedly regrets the spirit of accommodation it showed in scaling down the number of seats contested from the original demand of 100. The BJP's degree of leverage is sure to be far less than it may have wanted.

Regional formations entering an alliance with a national political party may suffer a natural sense of compunction. As a party with greater resources and a larger spread, the BJP could conceivably encroach gradually on the territory of the regional party and finally overwhelm it. In the recent contests, the INLD and the BJD obviously adopted one of the survival stratagems open to regional parties that are compelled to cohabit with the BJP. They will retain their leverage over the BJP at the Centre, sinc e the Atal Behari Vajpayee Ministry still subsists on a rather slender parliamentary majority. But the regional parties will hesitate to concede to the BJP a corresponding degree of influence in their home bastions.

This points to some restraints that will be imposed on the BJP as it sets about the job of implementing its ideological agenda. NDA allies such as the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamul Congress have already begun expressing some reservations over the G ujarat Government's decision to end the ban on its employees participating in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Laloo Prasad Yadav utilised this and a string of questionable administrative decisions in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh to create a sense of heightened public suspicion in the Bihar electorate over the BJP's long-term intentions. The alliance he confronted had many faces but he chose to direct his entire campaign against one: the RSS-BJP combine. His message was clear. All those who had a stake in avoiding the political isolation and social stigmatisation that was being visited on the minorities in U.P. ha d no option but to vote for him. He transformed the "jungle raj" epithet that had been hurled at him into a positive metaphor - he was, he said in one campaign meeting after another, a victim of RSS-BJP vilification. And if Bihar did not vote for him, it would soon suffer a worse fate. The rhetoric obviously struck a responsive chord somewhere. What followed was an almost miraculous revival of the Muslim-Yadav consolidation that has underpinned Laloo Prasad's dominance of Bihar for an entire decade.

Bihar was the one State that the BJP may have entertained realistic hopes of dominating. Among the NDA allies, it had by far the largest share in seats contested. But Laloo Prasad's master-stroke now means that the BJP will have to do without the symboli c and substantive authority that comes from governing the two largest States of the Union. In U.P. the party has proved incapable of containing the collision of interests between its traditional constituency among the upper castes and the new social grou ps that it managed to attract to its fold over the last decade. Laloo Prasad has shown in Bihar that the consolidation of "backward" sections under the rapidly fading slogan of "social justice" still retains a certain political relevance.

THE BJP's only solace comes from the Congress(I)'s continuing plunge. The extra stimulus gained from Sonia Gandhi's entry into active politics two years ago has now faded and the Congress(I) is now groping for a role and an identity. Sonia Gandhi's decis ion to take an aggressive stance on the RSS issue is a transparent effort to bolster her own flagging authority. She may succeed in containing dissidence for the very short term, but a fresh upsurge is foretold by the Rajya Sabha elections due late in Ma rch.

The Congress(I) victory in the Bellary parliamentary byelection, by a margin much higher than Sonia Gandhi had managed last year, was an ironic comment on her rapidly unravelling leadership of the party. But the Congress(I) remains averse to alternative centres of powers and remains impervious to any notion of devolution of authority.

Byelections in Uttar Pradesh seemed to indicate that the revival of the Congress(I) - which was perhaps the key feature of the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in the State - has proved short-lived. The parliamentary byelection from Kannauj in U.P. cemented Mula yam Singh Yadav's status as the principal Opposition force in the State. It also seemingly inaugurated a line of dynastic succession within the Samajwadi Party, by bringing Mulayam Singh's son into an active political role.

State Assembly byelections in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal confirmed the stability of existing ruling arrangements. Finally, the story of February 2000 is of a ruling arrangement at the Centre that is now more susceptible to the pressures o f regional politics. This has implications for the political agenda that will be unveiled in the months to come, in which the "second phase" of economic reforms will figure in a pivotal role. Official spokespersons have repeatedly warned that the Budget will be extremely harsh and that the onus of the next phase of reforms would be largely for the States to bear. The Assembly elections of February 2000 show that the States are perhaps in a better position than ever before to resist any unfair apportionm ent of responsibility. Far from entering a new phase of economic reforms, policy could well be heading into gridlock.