The BJP’s ‘akla chalo’ challenge

India’s political history shows that since 1984, there has been no unified national vote, nor has a government been formed without a significant coalition. Will Narendra Modi defy this trend?

September 21, 2013 12:34 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:22 pm IST

130921 - Lead - Cross currents-Modi

130921 - Lead - Cross currents-Modi

A peculiar contradiction marks Indian politics today. On the streets of metro cities and even smaller towns, only one name is being heard: Narendra Modi. His connect with the young and the middle classes is becoming increasingly apparent — in the crowds that turn up to hear him, in the frenzied support he commands in cyberspace, and in the fact that he is being projected as a leader with his pulse on the future. The significance of this in a rapidly urbanising and demographically young country can hardly be overstated.

Gravitational pull

When an emerging mass leader generates this kind of buzz, he exerts a gravitational pull on politics as a whole. A case in point is V.P. Singh, whose popular appeal brought the entire Opposition to his door. Importantly, corruption was the biggest campaign point against the Rajiv Gandhi regime, as is the case with the United Progressive Alliance government today. However, unlike then, the pulsating following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Minister-in-waiting commands has not translated into a discernible political shift towards him and the BJP. Indications so far are that Mr. Modi has set the opposite impulse in motion.

Indeed, the Gujarat Chief Minister’s presence at the helm has undone the one achievement that brought the BJP to power: coalition building. The BJP is back today to the pre-1998 isolation that frustrated its government-forming efforts, and which isolation only ended when it surrendered the very thing that defined the party — its core Hindutva agenda. Reaching power through alliances also meant backgrounding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s father organisation distinguished by its regressive outlook towards modernity, women and minorities.

In 2013, the RSS is not just back, it has decreed and ensured that Mr. Modi’s elevation takes place. This itself is hard to reconcile with the image that is being crafted for Mr. Modi. His national projection is of a modern and aspirational leader but he seems to exist at the pleasure of a mentor seen as a polar opposite to these ideas.

The BJP had walked a lonely path until 1984, when it acquired the Shiv Sena as its first ally. A whole 12 years later, in the 1996 general election, it made a vital breakthrough in the form of seat adjustments with the Samata Party, now the Janata Dal (United), and the Haryana Vikas Party. Post-poll, a fourth member, the Shiromani Akali Dal, came on board. That election was a watershed moment in Indian politics with the BJP displacing the Congress as the single largest party with its own career best tally of 161 seats. And yet, neither that stunning feat nor a first invite from President Shankar Dayal Sharma set off the expected rush towards the BJP, which bowed out of office in 13 days with the Akali Dal as its sole conquest. The message to the BJP was clear: with Hindutva-RSS in the forefront, it could not win friends for all the inducements in the world.

The man who changed things around for the BJP was none other than Lal Krishna Advani. Though the Ayodhya warrior had consciously taken the backseat to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 1996 election, he realised that the change of face had deluded none among the BJP’s potential partners. Thus began the marketing of Brand Vajpayee: the reinvented Atalji was a middle-roader, a moderate who had wearied of the Hindutva baggage, who disdained the RSS, and who, if need be, would jettison the party’s core agenda. It took two further years for the strategy to fructify but fructify it did. Mr. Vajpayee went into the 1998 general election with 8 major allies who included, incredibly, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Post-poll, another ideological opponent, the Telugu Desam Party, was won over and the first BJP-led government was born. The National Democratic Alliance was founded on the agreement that all Hindutva demands would be dropped, and in the pre-term general election held one year later, more parties, among them the atheist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, hopped on to the BJP bandwagon.

But as it gradually became clear to the BJP’s allies, the change they saw in the party was cosmetic. The 2002 Gujarat violence started the process of rethink in the allies, who, though slow to depart the coalition, did depart, and in each instance citing the Gujarat violence as the reason. The first to go, in 2002, was Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party, followed the same year by the National Conference. By 2004, the NDA had unravelled. And unbeknown to the BJP, another winning alliance was taking shape under Sonia Gandhi.

Today the BJP has only two allies, the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, both in ideological sync with the party. But unlike in 1996, when the BJP was torn about being shunned, in 2013 it is glorying in being alone. The RSS is pressing the BJP to be unapologetic about its original agenda. The Sangh has also made it clear that any potential partner would come to the BJP on the party’s terms, the exact reverse of 1996-1998 when the Atal-Advani pair sought partners on terms set by the latter.

The calculation obviously is that Mr. Modi’s early projection will trigger an infectious voting frenzy, enabling him to single-handedly pull off a BJP victory. If this happens, the Gujarat Chief Minister will be the first since V.P Singh to have set off a personality-induced wave. But for all the adulation he commanded, Mr. Singh was nothing without the political support he got. His own Janata Dal was formed by merging the Jan Morcha with the Janata Party and the two factions of the Lok Dal. The Janata Dal and a phalanx of regional parties together formed the National Front which was in turn supported in government by the BJP and the Left parties. So Mr. Singh’s illusory single-handed victory was a product in fact of support at every stage from a conglomerate of non-Congress parties.

Not just this. The spectacular Opposition unity could not decimate the Congress, which swept the south against all predictions. The Congress won 39 of 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh, 27 of 28 seats in Karnataka and 14 of 20 seats in Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress-AIADMK combine won 38 of 39 seats. The south defied the `VP’ wave, initiating the trend of fragmentation that persists to this day.

Indeed, the last nation-wide wave, which was in reaction to Indira Gandhi’s assassination, was in 1984. Since then the regional parties have become stronger, resulting in different regions voting differently. The consequence of this has been to prevent any one leader from being able to win an election entirely on his or her own strength.

Even in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, the Congress did not win a majority. Every single government formed since 1991 has been a coalition government. The BJP’s two big successes, in 1998 and 1999, were products of alliance making. In 1998, three significant alliances contributed to the party’s overall tally of 182 seats. The BJP for the first time picked up three seats in Tamil Nadu via its ally, the AlADMK. In Orissa, it hit the jackpot in combination with Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. As many as 30 of the BJP’s seats in this election came through vote transfers by allies. In 1999, the BJP had five successful pre-poll alliances — in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Of the BJP’s 182 seats, as many as 45 came through vote transfer by its allies, the TDP, the JD(U), the BJD, the DMK and the Trinamool Congress.

Need for allies

The truth is that there is no unified national vote today, and for all the bluster of the RSS, the BJP will need allies and will seek allies. Some potential partners such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the TDP are admittedly under cadre pressure to align with Mr. Modi’s BJP. Yet consider the current picture in Parliament. For obvious reasons there was across-the-board political consensus on the need for a food security legislation. However, the UPA’s draft bill itself met with wide opposition. There was not one non-UPA party that did not want an amendment pressed. The Left and the BJP wanted the bill further radicalised with universal rather than targeted coverage of beneficiaries.

So logically speaking, at least the BJP-Left amendments should have gone through. Instead, all the amendments were defeated. One of Sushma Swaraj’s proposals was defeated 241 to 109 votes and one of Murli Manohar Joshi’s amendments was defeated 284 to 117 votes. In other words, the BJP was unable to ensure the full presence of its own MPs, forget those of its two allies, when its amendments to an important bill came up for voting. How did the minority UPA manage 284 votes when no party was in agreement with its bill?

Seven months before the big fight, and notwithstanding the UPA’s down-in- the-pits status, the political congregation is around the Congress alliance rather than the BJP alliance. If Mr. Modi manages to win the election by himself, or even by winning over new allies, he will have beaten the odds and rewritten India’s political history.

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