By Amulya Ganguli
The BJP has reasons to smile because of the election results. An outright win in Goa, a return to power in Punjab and a third position in U.P., pushing the Congress to the last slot, cannot but be satisfying at a time when the party is facing the “porngate” scandal and a defiant former chief minister in Karnataka and a sulking Narendra Modi in Gujarat. It might have won in Uttarakhand, too, if it had removed the tainted Ramesh Pokhriyal from the chief minister’s post early enough to enable B.C. Khanduri retrieve the lost ground.
Although the BJP benefitted from the follies of its opponents rather than any special effort of its own, what these results show is that the BJP’s position as the national alternative to the Congress remains unchanged. However, it started the campaign nervously as some of its moves in U.P. on the eve of the elections showed. While the induction of the former rebel, Uma Bharati, into the party was the first sign of its desperation to woo the backward castes, the second was the hasty manner in which it tried to accommodate another OBC, the former BSP minister, Babu Singh Kushwaha, despite the charges against him in the health mission scam.
Since the Kushwaha episode caused a mini-revolt in the party against its president, Nitin Gadkari, the latter had to tell the Koeri leader that his formal admission will be delayed. But, the incident, along with Modi’s refusal to campaign in U.P. or anywhere else, and Varun Gandhi’s jibe that the party had more than 50 chief ministers, indicated that all was not well with the BJP.
But, in the end, none of it mattered. Although the BJP’s tally of seats has dropped from 51 to 47, and its vote share from 19 per cent to 15, it will be happy to remain ahead of the Congress since, in U.P., the Congress’s discomfiture matters a great deal because it shows how the wind is blowing in the Hindi heartland. If the Congress’s failure to rise above the fourth slot is taken together with its defeat in Punjab and Goa, then the message from the electorate is that the party is in serious trouble.
This assessment will be music to the BJP’s ears because it means that the party can approach the general elections with considerable confidence. True, it has its own problems. For one, the question of the prime ministerial candidate remains open. At least four contenders appear to be in the queue – the never-say-die L.K. Advani, the grumpy Modi, and the two Delhi-based stalwarts – Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj – who were pointedly ignored by the RSS when it chose Gadkari as the BJP president. It is obvious that the final choice will not be a smooth affair.
For another, there is no certainty that the NDA will remain in its present form as the general election approaches. It isn’t only that Nitish Kumar will walk out if there is an attempt to field Modi, no one knows how the Janata Dal (United) leader will respond to any overtures from Naveen Patnaik and other votaries of a new Third Front. However, factors such as the NDA’s durability would have aroused greater concern for the BJP if it had fared badly in the elections. But, with two victories under its belt, it will be on firmer footing.
The victories have also been a godsend to Gadkari. It is no secret that the portly Maharashtrian is regarded as a “provincial” (the term which Jaswant Singh used for for the former president, Rajnath Singh) by the more cosmopolitan among the BJP’s leaders. Gadkari is also gaffe-prone, as his description of Lalu Prasad Yadav and others as Sonia Gandhi’s canine followers and of Afzal Guru as the Congress’s son-in-law showed. He also tries to defend the indefensible, as could be seen from his attempts to save B.S. Yeddyurappa by saying that the former chief minister’s acts were only immoral and not illegal. The experiment with social engineering with Kushwaha would have also rebounded on him if the BJP fared poorly.
But, now that the BJP has survived the latest trial with relative ease, its next test will be to save the NDA. If it fails, then its chances of reaching the corridors of power at the centre are remote. To make matters worse, there is no one with Atal Behari Vajpayee’s wide appeal to sustain the NDA even if the BJP reiterates its dumping of the Hindu agenda – building the Ram temple, scrapping Article 370, introducing uniform civil code – as it did in 1996.
The BJP has an opportunity to undo the 2004 and 2009 verdicts considering that the Congress has lost its sense of direction because of the tug-of-war between Sonia Gandhi’s socialism and Manmohan Singh’s neo-liberalism. But, the BJP has no one with a broad, pan-Indian vision capable of utilizing the opportunity. (IPA)