Two years into its second term, the Congress looks bruised and battered. But the BJP has done nothing to exploit the situation.
Some months ago, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader confessed to journalists that he was in no hurry to send off the corruption-hit Manmohan Singh government. The longer the Congress-led ruling alliance stewed in its own juice, the better it got for the BJP: “Each day the Congress spends in office facing corruption charges is a bonus for us.”
There was a second reason why it made sense to keep the government bound hand and foot and gasping for breath. Chaos and confusion would surely follow its premature departure. In a Lok Sabha where the Congress held 207 seats and where the Left and the right would never unite, much less gather the rag-tag pieces required for a new coalition, who would put together the next unlikely government? And if that was not an option, who, if anyone, would be willing and ready to face another general election? On the other hand, a government perennially in crisis mode offered the advantage of time and strategy to its rivals while itself suffering the disadvantage of growing anti-incumbency.
The logic was unassailable. In two short years, the re-elected United Progressive Alliance, the Congress in particular, had become damaged goods. Not many would recognise the battered, bruised alliance that sat edgily in office in 2011 as the 2009 wunderkind that had beaten the odds to win a second term. And yet with three years to go for the 2014 Lok Sabha denouement, only an infantile Opposition could assume that the situation would not get any better for the government; indeed that the Opposition could take a sabbatical while the government slowly and surely self-destructed.
Here in fact comes the twist in the story. The Congress has undoubtedly shot itself in the foot. But where in all this is its principal adversary? It is a fair bet that at least in the past decade, no event has so completely dominated the news headlines as corruption in UPA-II. And yet, the BJP would be lucky to even figure in the footnotes of any documentation of the scam and scandal saga that has, over the past year, become the staple of newspapers and television. If the 2G scam is a household word today, it is thanks to the tedious work done by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Supreme Court under whose watch the gargantuan fraud eventually unravelled. Anna Hazare pitched in to spread the word. The BJP remained satisfied with short bursts of energy during Parliament sessions and stock responses during TV studio debates.
For a role model of Opposition behaviour, rewind to the spectacular days of 1987 when V.P. Singh quickly and dramatically moved in to take charge of the anti-Bofors campaign. News of the kickbacks broke over Swedish Radio on April 16, 1987, when Singh was still part of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Nonetheless, by May 3, 1987, he had already hit the road, following up a Brashtrachar Bhandapod (exposure of corruption) campaign announced in Lucknow with a flurry of rallies mostly in Delhi and across Uttar Pradesh. Singh had wisely calculated that Uttar Pradesh with 85 Lok Sabha seats was the key to unseating Rajiv Gandhi. By the time of the 1989 election, he had whipped up an electric mood against the Rajiv Gandhi regime, carrying his message to the nooks and crannies of the villages in north India. The untiring foot-work saw him replace Rajiv as Prime Minister.
Of course, Singh succeeded because he carried credibility with the voters. There was not a whiff of scandal about Singh which set him in bold relief against a government widely perceived as corrupt. The BJP, with its track record of ducking every allegation against the B.S. Yeddyurappa government in Karnataka, is obviously not in the same league as Singh who majestically occupied the moral high ground in his time. But the BJP has a bigger problem today. It is no longer in the consciousness of the larger public and the media, resulting in an alarming absence of audience even on the rare occasion that it has exerted to stir up trouble — as it did recently over the farmers' agitation in the twin villages of Bhatta and Parsaul in Greater Noida.
Conscious of the upcoming 2012 Assembly election, the BJP had jumped into the fight against Mayawati. But once Rahul Gandhi arrived Rambo-like on the scene, the audience quickly moved to his side. Thirsty TV cameras followed the Congress heir's every move, anchors hung on to his every word, and if he made gaffes, as he did, it was so much the better for prime time news. The BJP's Kalraj Mishra shouted himself hoarse. It was apparent that his version of events matched Mr. Gandhi's almost in toto: The police had killed 35 farmers, and hundreds had gone missing, he said, but to no avail. It was the Rahul tamasha that got the spotlight.
Tied in knots
In Delhi, the BJP leadership tied itself in knots, caught between having to back Mr. Mishra and knock Mr. Gandhi on his howlers. The drama established one thing: The Congress knew how to make news. Whatever the party's eventual fate in U.P., it had forced itself into the frame when it mattered. The BJP, which was once master of all it surveyed in the State, could not even pull off a PR stunt, much less tweak the public imagination so that at least visually it had the look of a fighter.
The year 2009 was disastrous for the BJP with the party winning no State election. In 2010, the BJP fought and won a magnificent election in Bihar. However, that turned out to be the only leap of the graph in its fortunes. Of the 824 seats up for grabs in the recent Assembly elections, the BJP won five to the Congress' 170. Thirteen States, accounting for 2059 seats, went to the polls between April-May 2009 — when UPA-II took office — and April-May 2011, when the regime completed two years. Of these, the Congress won 546 or 26 per cent of the seats. The BJP won 177 or 8.9 per cent of the seats. By any yardstick this was unremarkable showing by the Congress. But if the trend held, the BJP would certainly have to abandon its dream of a 2014 general election victory. It ought to be a sobering thought for the party that of the 177 seats, as many as 91 came from Bihar. To be sure, some of the big ticket BJP States have still to go to the polls. Of the 726 seats on offer during the last Assembly elections in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP won 338 seats. But even allowing for an encore in these States, the BJP has a long way to go before reaching the fitness levels required to seriously fight the 2014 general election.
The bulk of the 116 Lok Sabha seats the BJP won in 2009 came from its core strength States of Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. To improve on this performance, the BJP needs major alliance partners — and here the party has made no headway at all. The BJP currently has only three steady allies — the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (United). The status of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which came from nowhere to partner the BJP in 2009, remains uncertain.
The Congress and the BJP tend to set off opposite dynamics in coalitional politics. The BJP is ever eager to embrace allies who, however, seem increasingly disinclined to consider it a partner. The imperious Congress disdains alliance partners, missing no opportunity to show them their place. Even so, it does not lack for wannabe partners, among them Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh.
Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu were both originally in an alliance with the BJP. Today, they have better options. For a growing number of regional parties, it is also a cost-benefit calculation between gaining the BJP and losing the support of the minorities. Naveen Patnaik dropped the BJP ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, not wanting the anti-Christian attacks to damage his image. In 2010, Nitish Kumar drew back from the brink, and has since emasculated the BJP and set his own agenda.
For the BJP, it is a catch-22 situation — and despite the current sorry state of the Congress. For the party to become a player in any post election calculation in 2014 — this is assuming the Congress alliance is defeated — it would need to gather a critical mass of support.
Potential allies would find the BJP attractive only if it won enough seats to head a broad-based alliance. But winning a large cache of seats would require the party to be in a strong alliance in the first place.
It is no help that the BJP continues to make news for the wrong reasons. Last week, Sushma Swaraj indirectly attacked her rivals, drawing unwelcome attention to the BJP's unceasing intra-party warfare. Who will lead the Congress in 2014 is a valid question to ask. But in the case of the BJP there are two questions to ask. Who will lead the BJP? And where is the BJP?