(Frontline, April 11-24, 2009)

by Praful Bidwai

As the BJP struggles to stem its decline by using communal means and the Congress spurns alliances, political churning is producing new uncertainties.

IF Feroze Varun Gandhi wanted to imitate his father Sanjay Gandhi in brazenly defying the law of the land, throwing civility and political decency to the winds, and mobilising goons to challenge the Uttar Pradesh administration, he could not have done better than he did by courting arrest amidst stone-throwing and slogan-shouting at Pilibhit. As his supporters celebrated his anti-Muslim hate speeches and communal villainy, Varun Gandhi emerged a hero for the Bharatiya Jana ta Party (BJP), which has refused to deny him the party ticket for the Lok Sabha elections.

Varun re-enacted the Sanjay Gandhi of the immediate post-Emergency period every inch of the way as he defied legal summons, condemned judges inquiring into his excesses as politically prejudiced, and asked his admirers to whip up hysteria and unleash violence. The only difference is that Sanjay Gandhi was an experienced practitioner of lumpen politics and had the Youth Congress apparatus behind him, while his son is a political greenhorn.

One only has to recall the headlines of 1977-79 highlighting the “free-for-all at Sanjay Gandhi’s court appearance” and the mayhem after he was held guilty of destroying a film Kissa Kursi Ka critical of the Emergency to note the parallels between the methods of Sanjay Gandhi and his son.

By maligning Muslims, and threatening to “chop off their hands” and “forcibly sterilise them”, Varun Gandhi has catapulted himself into the BJP’s top echelons. His route to fame is indisputably inglorious. He speaks the unspeakable – or rather, what many in the Sangh Parivar think, but dare not say in public – and deliberately acts like a lout, gratuitously vitiating the political discourse, offending public morality, spreading fear and loathing, and exploiting every legal loophole in the cynical pursuit of power.

Suddenly, the least-known Gandhi in the Indira Gandhi family has become a Hindutva icon. The formula is crude: spew venom against a beleaguered minority and win votes in the secure knowledge that a candidate cannot be disqualified under the Representation of the People Act (RPA) while campaigning. Others too have tried the formula, but Varun Gandhi has succeeded spectacularly, if shockingly, because he is a Gandhi.

By all accounts, this was not a BJP or Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) script. Varun Gandhi himself authored it. He knew he could present a fait accompli to the BJP and yet count on its support because it is the kind of party it is – wedded to Islamophobia, grossly communal, instinctively devious, and desperate to win votes by means however foul, so long as it can get away.

To its abiding disgrace, the BJP has backed Varun Gandhi to the hilt. With the hypocrisy that is its trademark, it says it does not share his allegedly anti-Muslim sentiments and dissociates itself from the remarks attributed to him based on a CD recording of three of his speeches. But it also supports his ludicrous claim that the CD was doctored. It has doggedly rejected the Election Commission’s (E.C.) advice not to field Varun Gandhi.

The fact that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani fully endorses this position, itself based on egregiously immoral double standards and crass cynicism, speaks poorly both of him and his party.

Varun Gandhi confronted the legal-political system with a big challenge. The E.C. found itself helpless to debar him despite strong prima facie evidence. Unlike in the Bal Thackeray case, where the speech was made to support another person (candidate Ramesh Prabhoo), this instance involves Varun Gandhi’s own act. The E.C. could have fortified itself by getting an expert opinion on the CD’s authenticity, but did not.

This is not the first time the BJP (or the equally communal Shiv Sena) has used viciously anti-Muslim appeals to win votes. The E.C. has over the years disqualified 3,423 people from contesting elections for “corrupt electoral practices”, many involving communal canvassing.

Yet sadly, according to most interpretations, the E.C. has no powers to disqualify a candidate until after a court holds him/her guilty. This is a gaping loophole. It does not stand to reason that disqualification should only become possible after a candidate has poisoned the political climate, polarised opinion along communal lines, and converted hatred into votes. Belated disqualification can at best partially remedy the original offence.

The E.C. recommended in 1998 that the law be amended to allow disqualification before trial where the offence is grave and a charge-sheet has been filed. Ironically, last year, a parliamentary committee rejected the recommendation. Its members included legal luminaries such as Ram Jethmalani and Abhishek Singhvi. MUCH-ABUSED LAW

Now the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh has booked Varun Gandhi under the draconian National Security Act (NSA), 1980, which allows him to be detained for up to a year without bail subject to approval by an advisory board, to which the case must be referred within three weeks, and which must give its decision within seven weeks. If the detention is approved, Varun Gandhi will not be able to campaign although he can contest the election.

In one sense, this remedies the flaw in the RPA, but risks another excess. The NSA is indeed a much-abused law. It has been routinely applied in numerous States to make preventive arrests of hardened criminals and those inciting communal violence, indeed even to deter riots and unrest. Its objective is defined by a holdall term: preventing a person from acting “in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state or … to the maintenance of public order…”

Incitement of communal violence logically falls within this category, but the law should be used with the utmost caution. The U.P. government can claim that it acted with patience. It filed two First Information Reports against Varun Gandhi and tried repeatedly to stop him from acting provocatively, but he recklessly went ahead, leaving it with no other option. It is probable that Mayawati had a political purpose too: of countering the Samajwadi Party’s (S.P.) charge that she is soft on the BJP. But Varun Gandhi’s political agenda was far worse.

At any rate, the NSA has been used by several governments, including BJP-led ones, for much lesser offences. For instance, it was used under the BJP in 11 districts of Rajasthan in 2007 against the Gujjar agitation for reservation. Last December, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA was detained under the Act in U.P. for killing engineer Manoj Kumar Gupta. Nobody protested against this. So the BJP is on slippery ground in criticising Varun Gandhi’s detention as “political vendetta” – another case of its double standards.

The plain truth is that the BJP is desperate. Its campaign is not doing well. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has shrunk to less than a third of its original size. Its second most important component, Janata Dal (United), is deeply uncomfortable with the BJP’s stance on many issues, including its Hindu-communal orientation in general, and its support for Varun Gandhi’s antics, in particular.

Further, the BJP has wantonly antagonised the JD(U) by fielding Shatrughan Sinha and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, both vitriolic critics of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Nitish Kumar says he does not want Narendra Modi and other communally tainted BJP leaders to campaign for the NDA in his State.

Although Nitish Kumar’s own State-level popularity is not in doubt – thanks to his record of relatively good, responsive governance – many of his supporters, especially Muslims, but not just them, will not cast their ballots for the NDA in the national election because that would mean endorsing Advani as Prime Minister. No wonder the JD(U) has dropped hints that it may quit the NDA soon after the Lok Sabha elections. DIVIDED BJP

Organisationally, the BJP presents a picture of disunity and disorder. Campaign strategist Arun Jaitley has rebelled against the U.P.-centric and rustic party president Rajnath Singh, who only wields limited clout. Narendra Modi has acted tough on candidate selection in Gujarat, even defying Advani. And in acceptance and authority, Advani is no match for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The recent change in the RSS’ top leadership can at best provide a minor boost to the BJP as it flounders for strategy.

If the voting pattern of the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh repeats itself in the national elections, the BJP will lose 10-12 seats in its Central Indian bastion. In addition, it will probably lose some in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Karnataka’s last Lok Sabha election was a freak. The Congress bagged more votes but fewer seats than the BJP, the JD (Secular) split the anti-BJP vote, and the iron-ore miners’ lobby played a disproportionate role. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena has split.

It is unclear if the BJP can make up these losses in its core geographical base area through (probably small) gains in Gujarat, Jharkhand and Haryana. It could also suffer further erosion in U.P. and Bihar, where it is already marginal. Its allies are unlikely to do brilliantly, especially in Punjab, U.P. and Assam. CONGRESS’ ISOLATION

However, this cannot bring much cheer to the Congress which vetoed a joint national campaign or profile for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and is now paying for its decision.

Unlike in 2004, when Sonia Gandhi walked the extra mile to recruit allies and reach out to numerous leaders, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M. Karunanidhi, BSP’s Mayawati, Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar and Lok Janshakti Party’s (LJP) Ram Vilas Paswan, this time the Congress is confining alliance-building to Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Jharkhand.

It has spurned seat-sharing deals in the Hindi heartland. It probably was never serious about one with the S.P., but strung the party along and refused its offer of 17 seats. (It currently has nine of U.P’s 80 seats.) It will now fight the S.P. in more than 60 seats, losing the advantage of a fruitful alliance that would have drawn some Muslim and upper-caste votes away from the BSP, and conceivably won 35-40 seats. In Bihar, the RJD-LJP upped the ante by offering the Congress a minuscule three seats. Effectively, it has no allies there.

The Congress’ decision to go solo was reportedly heavily influenced by Rahul Gandhi and functionaries such as Digvijay Singh and Ahmed Patel, who believe the party must be rebuilt from scratch in the Hindi heartland; so it must contest as many seats as possible. The Congress leadership is loath to sacrificing the party’s distinct political identity and space, and believes that it must counter the “Tamil Nadu-isation” of U.P. and Bihar, under which it would forever play second fiddle to the S.P. or the BSP, much as it does to the DMK or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

This is a huge gamble. The Congress not only lacks the leaders and cadre with which to rebuild itself in U.P. and Bihar; but Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to create a youthful new leadership there has failed to produce results, indeed even credible candidates.

The party can only be rebuilt through grassroots organising and by developing progressive policies and programmes, which can help it connect with the social groups which have been at the centre of recent transformative processes, including Dalit self-assertion and the Mandal mobilisation, to which the Congress has not related at all for three decades.

There is no sign of this happening. Rahul Gandhi’s social agenda is even more confused than his right-leaning economic policy orientation. So the Congress’ decision to go solo is fraught with the risk of growing isolation. It also carries the disadvantage of not having a pre-election alliance, which is likely to be cited, after the precedent set by former President K.R. Narayanan, as the criterion for being invited to form the government in case of a hung Parliament.

If the Congress fails to equal or better its 2004 score of 145 seats, it will be hard put to stake a credible claim to government – unless it is prepared to make all kinds of compromises. On present reckoning, 145 seats are not assured. The Congress-UPA is likely to suffer setbacks in Tamil Nadu, and probably in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Gujarat. Whether it can recoup these likely losses is an open question. If the gamble fails, the Congress may have to lend support to a non-Congress non-BJP Third Front – if only to keep the NDA out of power. NEED FOR A PROGRAMME

The Third Front has recently expanded and acquired momentum. But without a convincing common programmatic document asserting its commitment to secularism, an inclusive economic policy, and independent foreign and security policies, it cannot project itself as a credible and attractive alternative.

This will not be easy because all the Third Front’s constituents barring the Left stand tainted by their past association with the BJP-NDA, including the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the JD(S) and the AIADMK. The BSP too has thrice shared power with the BJP in U.P. and Mayawati has campaigned for Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Again, many regional parties in the Third Front no longer represent the plebeian social coalitions and egalitarian or emancipatory agendas they did in the late-1980s or 1990s.

Still, the Third Front is a worthy idea but it will have to be forged over a period of time through grassroots struggles on issues that really matter to the underprivileged. A non-Congress non-BJP combine could make a good beginning if it wins 130-150 seats. This will help it attract support from other parties, including some NDA constituents. But this assumes that the TDP, AIADMK, the JD(S) and above all the BSP perform remarkably well, and that the Left parties do not lose a significant number of seats. These are big ifs.

Even if the Third Front can become the nucleus of a government, it will need external support. That spells uncertainties. The Biju Janata Dal, the Akali Dal, the Asom Gana Parishad and probably the TDP will find it difficult to accept Congress support. If the BSP joins the Third Front, the S.P. will not. If the Left is part of it, the Trinamul Congress will keep away. If the RJD joins it, the JD(U) may not. Amidst these uncertainties, political churning continues unabated.