20 September 2013

by Praful Bidwai

The Bharatiya Janata Party has committed a historic blunder by allowing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—a secretive, conspiratorial, unelected body with a deeply sectarian anti-democratic agenda—to dictate the choice of its Prime Ministerial candidate for the next election. It’s no surprise that the candidate is India’s vilest and most hated political figure, who has blood on his hands, pure aggression in his veins, and a slavishly pro-corporate agenda in his heart.

What is surprising is the schoolboyish breathlessness and unforgivable exuberance with which sections of the media reported Narendra Modi’s nomination as if he had already won the election, vindicating the BJP’s claim to being the “natural party of governance”: it should rule Hindu-majority India by virtue of its own Hindu-communal nature.

The BJP would like to give the contest a quasi-“Presidential” character. That would help it exploit Mr Modi’s cultivated “strong leader” image, render Indian politics more bipolar, and make a convincing bid for national power.

The BJP is deluding itself. But it could make limited gains under Mr Modi—not because he has anything positive to offer, including his extravagant and now-deflated claims to “development”, but because it can capitalise on its opponents’ mistakes, as recently happened in Western Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian polity isn’t bipolar. Nor is the BJP in the same league as the Congress in the regional or class/group composition of its base or breadth of its appeal. The Congress, with all its limitations, faults, policy elitism and deplorable dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is an all-India party, with a significant to strong presence in almost every state, including the Gangetic belt. It held one of the top two positions in 350 (of 543) Lok Sabha constituencies in 2009, and won 206 seats.

The BJP is mainly confined to Western-Central India, and has an uncertain relationship with the Gangetic delta, which it penetrated only briefly in the 1990s by exploiting the communal polarisation created by the Ramajanmabhoomi movement. The BJP has a narrower (one-third smaller) base than the Congress. It stood first or second in 226 constituencies in 2009, and won only 116 seats.

The Congress has ruled India for more than 50 years. It was resilient enough to move from one-party rule/salience based on the traditional coalition of upper-castes-plus-core-minorities (Dalits and Muslims) and remains relevant even in the “coalition era”.

The BJP was in power for only six years in the 66 years of India’s independence, and hasn’t shown itself capable of coming to power nationally even once on its own.

The difference in the Congress’s and BJP’s national vote-shares widened from four to 10 percentage-points between 2004 and 2009. Until the Emergency, the Congress would get more than 40 percent of the national vote, and win two-thirds of all Lok Sabha seats. The vote-share fell in the 1977 post-Emergency election to 34.5 percent, but soon perked up to 40 percent-plus.

Since 1989, however, the Congress has been in relative decline, with its vote-share falling to under 30 percent. But at no point has the Congress’s performance fallen to the 7-to-10 percent vote-share or 70-to-90 seats traditionally won by the Jana Sangh-BJP, or even to the BJP’s high scores since 1989, which ended one-party rule, and after which the Congress lost power thrice.

True, the BJP’s highest-ever vote-share (25.6 percent in 1998) is more than double of what it was in 1989. Then, it won 11.4 percent, which famously catapulted it from 2 seats to 89 seats. But this still doesn’t match the Congress’s lowest-ever vote (25.8 percent, in 1998).

Unless the BJP can add something like 7-to-10 percentage-points to its current vote-tally of 18.8 percent, and also widen its support-base, it’s difficult to see how it can win the critical mass of Lok Sabha seats needed to form a coalition government at the Centre.

This critical mass would be close to 200 seats of the BJP alone, rather than the 180-odd it got in 1998-99 when many more parties were willing to join its National Democratic Alliance. The NDA, which once comprised 23 formations, has lost ally after ally and has now shrunk to the BJP+Akali Dal+Shiv Sena, with minor factions from Maharashtra and Haryana.

Unless the NDA substantially expands, primarily by attracting major regional parties, it’s extremely unlikely to come to power, Modi or no Modi. The shrewd Nationalist Congress leader Sharad Pawar predicts that just 6 regional groups will hold the key to government formation in 2014: Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal(United) and AIADMK.

Of these, only the AIADMK, led by J Jayalalithaa, is likely to join the NDA if it closes in on power. She flaunts her friendship with Mr Modi, and is India’s only politician outside the BJP-Shiv Sena to have welcomed the Babri demolition and defended Mr Modi’s complicity in the Gujarat pogrom.

Ms Jayalalithaa is an exception. Mr Modi’s authoritarianism, megalomania, abrasive style, and above all, his irreparably tarnished communal image, will repel other potential allies—as shown by the JD(U)’s expulsion of the BJP from Bihar’s ruling alliance. Mr Modi will prove more a liability than an asset in winning the regional parties’ support.

Regional parties have steadily gained importance in politics and now command close to 30 percent of the national vote, compared to just 11 percent in 1984. Their rise has pushed the Congress-BJP’s combined vote below 50 percent—decisively bursting the “two-party system” myth.

Manufacturing and sustaining that myth is crucial to the BJP’s strategy of “presidentialising” the coming election, and pushing Mr Modi’s image of a strong-willed leader and doer with an advantage over his rivals in a direct contest. But the contest won’t be direct or presidential-style. Given the Parliamentary system, the fate of all PM-aspirants will largely hinge on stitching up coalitions.

India’s political system has become increasingly multipolar, with a marked rise in the number of parties and sharper competition between them. The number of parties contesting elections has spurted almost sevenfold from 55 in 1952 to 370 in 2009. The average number of parties represented in the Lok Sabha has risen from 19 between 1952 and 1984, to 33 in 1989, to 39 now. If the different parties’ vote-shares are factored in to produce what political scientists call their “effective number”, that index has risen even more sharply, from 1.7 to 6.5.

Mr Modi is thus called upon not just to win more seats for the BJP, but to break Indian politics’ multipolar mould, no less. But winning the 200-plus (perhaps 220-230?) seats needed to do this is a tall order for the BJP given its narrow social (primarily upper-caste) and geographical base.

That mould can be broken if Mr Modi polarises politics, especially in the Gangetic plains, along communal lines—just as the Sangh Parivar did in the late 1980s-early 1990s through the Ram temple movement, which mobilised millions of people across the length and breadth of India, including sections of the mofussil non-Savarna middle class and the middle castes.

But there is no temple movement today, and the Parivar’s strained recent attempts to instigate one have all failed. Yet, Mr Modi, a viciously divisive figure, it might be argued, could successfully polarise politics—not just by repelling Muslims and secularly inclined voters away, but also by creating a new aggressive Hindutva identity, which wins legitimacy and appeal.

Under today’s circumstances, the second can only happen when communal violence is generated and systematically harnessed to further Hindutva politics. The recent Muzaffarnagar-Shamli violence in Western Uttar Pradesh, occurring in the state’s broader context of low-intensity communal clashes in nearly 80 places this year, is a case in point.

A minor incident—in which a youth from one community allegedly made lewd remarks to a girl of another community—was converted by RSS-VHP-BJP rumour-campaigns about “love jihad” (seduction-abduction of Hindu women by Muslims) into a serious Jat-Muslim conflict, in which 40 people were killed and 50,000 displaced.

This wouldn’t have happened if the Akhilesh Yadav government had acted impartially and promptly, and enforced bans on caste/community Mahapanchayats which incited trouble. But the government was perceived as inept, partisan, and indulgent towards violence, which some Samajwadi Party leaders calculated, might help consolidate their Muslims support-base.

The long-term cause for the communal violence was the breakdown of the Jat-Muslim coalition which Charan Singh built, which has sustained the Rashtriya Lok Dal as the region’s biggest party. But perception of Samajwadi partisanship and Parivar rumour-mongering were the mediatory factors in the Jats’ desertion of the RLD and gravitation towards the BJP.

Whether all this was planned by Amit Shah, Mr Modi’s UP election strategist—sent there not because of his non-existent expertise on the state, but his experience in instigating violence—isn’t established. But the point is, the Parivar will cynically foment violence because it gains from it.

After Muzaffarnagar, the secular parties must be on their guard and act with scrupulous fairness and impartiality against communal violence. That, with effective broad-based alliances, holds the key to foiling Mr Modi’s designs. —end--