Unfit to rule

Print edition : December 05, 1998

MERELY eight months in Central office, the coalition Government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party finds its political credibility, not to mention its moral authority to govern, snatched away from it. The electoral debacle the party of the Hindu Right has suffered in three battlegrounds of traditional saffron strength, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, means three things politically.

First, it signifies a demoralising erosion of the BJP's popular base in a significant part of its region of strength, the Hindi-speaking region - underlining the unstable nature of its earlier gains as much as the volatility of the Indian electoral game. It sends out a signal in the political system that the BJP is eminently defeatable, sooner rather than later, and certainly in a mid-term national election. Secondly, it puts the BJP in government in a position of even greater disadvantage vis-a-vis its demanding and unreliable allies, notably Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Mamata Banerji's Trinamul Congress. Indeed it places the Vajpayee Government at their short-term mercy. Thirdly, the saffron party's political misery is matched by the resurgence of the Congress(I) in States where it is directly pitted against the BJP and is, in fact, the sole alternative to it. The fact that these emphatic victories for the principal Opposition party have come early during the helmswomanship of Sonia Gandhi raises her stature as a national political leader and positions her party as the obvious leader of the next Central government, whenever it comes. (There can be no serious talk at this stage of any 'third force' forming or leading a coalition government.)

WHAT explains the BJP debacle and the Congress(I) resurgence? It is the plain fact that, for a variety of reasons starting with popular resentment against the recent sharp rises in the prices of essential commodities, people in many hundreds of thousands, even some millions, have turned against the party of Central government which is manifestly communal, divisive, and inept beyond compare. The BJP's claim to be different from other parties has been injured by unsavoury developments in several States, by its naked communalism, by rank opportunism in the alliance politics pursued, and by the involvement of some of its leaders in corruption and other scandals. But it is the brief and ongoing experience of the BJP leading the Central Government that has undermined its political credibility. The inaction against savage price rises, the complete indifference to the people's mood on basic issues, and the attempt to focus election campaign attention on issues unrelated to the people's livelihood have fuelled this process of self-inflicted disintegration. Hearteningly, there was no indication during this election season that the people were willing to buy the BJP's pseudo-nationalist agenda based on nuclear hawkishness and jingoism, efforts to smuggle in saffronisation of education, and minority-baiting.

A fairly strong anti-BJP wind has been blowing across the three Hindi-speaking States, strengthening or neutralising anything as conventional and predictable as the 'anti-incumbency factor'. In Rajasthan, this was evident in the February 1998 Lok Sabha contest in which the BJP was routed. Not surprisingly, the situation for the party ruling this State was worsened by the numerous intimations and effects of misgovernance at the Centre. The Congress(I) sweep of better than three fourths of the Rajasthan Assembly seats has come on the strength of a five percentage point favourable swing in popular vote share and a seven percentage point swing against the BJP. This movement has widened the popular vote gap between the two contenders to a formidable 11 percentage points. The Delhi sweep of just under three fourths of the Assembly seats has been even more impressive. Here the gap in vote share between the Congress(I) and the BJP, which has ruled Delhi for practically the past decade, is actually 15 percentage points. The sharp swing against the BJP in eight months reflects nothing short of mass disgust with the saffron party's record of governance at the Centre and in the State.

BUT it is the performance of the ruling party in Madhya Pradesh, where secular- and development-minded Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has pulled off an astonishing triumph, that is most instructive. Here an 'anti-incumbency factor' seemed to be very much at work in the 1996 and 1998 general elections in which the BJP forged ahead of the Congress(I) in some 220 of the 320 Assembly segments. But the swing away from the State's ruling party and towards the BJP has been completely reversed, making for a famous BJP defeat (a mere 119 of the 320 Assembly seats compared with 172 for the Congress-I.)

This can only mean that to a large and clearly growing mass of voters, the BJP-led regime in New Delhi (which has already set a world record for the number of coalition partners) presents itself as the model of how not to govern. Under this regime, the credibility of the Central Government has been eroded in record time. It can only be a matter of fairly short time before this motley coalition falls under the weight of its contradictions and unmatched misgovernance.

Faced with a new political situation and opportunity, the leader of the Congress party has thus far taken sure and skilful steps, testifying to her maturing as a political leader. Sonia Gandhi has done well to rule out any short cuts, any haste or over-eagerness to pull down the Central Government and form or promote an alternative arrangement. Pulling down the Government by wooing, say, Jayalalitha's AIADMK out of the BJP camp is likely to prove relatively easy, given the indications. Putting together the numbers required for some kind of interim non-BJP government at the Centre is certain to prove extraordinarily difficult. The trick for the leadership of the Congress(I) is to strike a balance between the imperative of sustaining and developing the political momentum it has achieved and the need to avoid doing anything that might backfire or appear politically unseemly. At the back of its mind, the Congress(I) leadership surely knows that it must not be carried away by these electoral successes in a part of India where the party is at a relative advantage, where its strength can be said to be over-represented and its weaknesses under-represented. It knows that the process of historic decline of the party is far gone and will be virtually impossible to reverse.

The saffron debacle in a significant part of India's most populous region brings the thirteenth general election nearer. It also raises interesting questions, basic as well as tactical, relating to how best to check and defeat the communal and divisive party of the Hindu Right.

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