September 19, 2013

by Praful Bidwai

It’s now clear that the key to the formation of the Central government in 2014 lies in just six states: Uttar Pradesh (80 Lok Sabha seats), Maharashtra (48), Andhra Pradesh (42), West Bengal (42), Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39). Together, these account for 291 (54 percent) of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats, and have determined the fate of different alliances since one-party rule ended in 1989. BJP ascendancy in the 1990s and NDA victories in 1998-99 are explained by performance in the Six Biggies. So are the Congress’s and UPA’s 2004 and 2009 wins.

The BJP and the RSS may be ecstatic about Narendra Modi’s anointment as their Prime Ministerial candidate at the latter’s behest. But they should know the BJP doesn’t count for toffee in three of these states, piggybacks on the split-weakened Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and is a small player in UP and Bihar. Its fate crucially hinges on doing exceptionally well there.

UP and Bihar are home to more than one-fifth of all Lok Sabha constituencies; more importantly, they are sharply fragmented along caste and religious-community lines. The BJP doesn’t enjoy a particular advantage in their multi-cornered contests.

At another level, six major regional parties, predicts the shrewd Sharad Pawar, will hold the key to who forms the next government: Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal(United) and AIADMK. This too presents a huge challenge to the BJP. In the past, it recruited the support of three, even four, of these. Today, it can at best draw in the AIADMK. The NDA once comprised 23 formations, but now stands stripped essentially to the BJP+Akali Dal+Shiv Sena.

AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa flaunts her friendship with Modi, and is India’s only non-Hindutva politician to have welcomed the Babri demolition and justified the Gujarat pogrom. But ironically, it’s she who brought down the NDA in 1999! So a question-mark hangs over her reliability, besides her ability to top up the NDA’s strength to 272—if it comes anywhere near power.

What does this mean? Given the NDA’s continuing weakness, the BJP must win 200-plus (perhaps 220-230?) seats on its own to generate a critical mass to form a ruling coalition. The 1998-99 score of 180-odd won’t do. This entails raising its national vote (currently 18.8 percent) by close to 10 percentage-points—primarily from UP and Bihar, despite their multi-cornered contests. This is a tall order given the BJP’s narrow, primarily upper-caste, base.

The shortest, if dirtiest, route to victory in the circumstances is to polarise politics along religious lines by engineering communal violence. This is exactly what happened in Muzaffarnagar-Shamli in Western UP. A minor incident—a youth allegedly made lewd remarks to a girl of another community—was converted by RSS-VHP-BJP rumour-mills into “love jihad” (seduction-abduction of Hindu women), triggering Jat-Muslim clashes, in which 40 people were killed and 50,000 displaced.

This wouldn’t have happened if the Samajwadi Party government had acted promptly and banned incendiary caste/community conferences. But it was perceived as inept, partisan, and indulgent towards violence, which some SP leaders calculated, might consolidate their Muslims support-base.

The real long-term cause here was the breakdown of Charan Singh’s old Jat-Muslim coalition. But perception of partisanship and Parivar rumour-mongering ensured the Jats’ gravitation towards the BJP. Whether this was pre-planned isn’t established. The point is, the Parivar will foment violence to electoral ends. It must be resolutely stopped.

Bidwai is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi.