Monday, February 20, 2017
NEW DELHI: The general belief that the Shiromani Akali Dal led National Democratic Alliance is facing an ignominious defeat in Punjab and that it is the Aam Aadmi Party that seems to be in pole position has opened up room for all sorts of speculations about new political alliances.
This has acquired piquancy now that most knowledgeable observers hold that the Bharatiya Janata Party is facing a similar rout in western Uttar Pradesh. (We will have to wait for the results on March 11.).
In 2014 the BJP won UP with over 42% of the vote wining all the Lok Sabha seats except the seven Yadav and Gandhi family fiefdoms. But it was in western UP that the BJP fared really spectacularly. Here, in the area that just went to vote on February 11, the BJP won 18 of the 22 parliamentary seats by polling more than all other parties together.
In the months before the elections there were bloody communal riots in Muzzafarnagar and surrounding areas in the epicenter of the Jat heartland. The RSS whipped this into a frenzy that gave the BJP 52% of the popular vote. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself led the charge here and made sneaky references to the recent relative prosperity of some of the Muslim community to the “pink revolution”, which was a code phrase for cow slaughter. The blood soaked green fields yielded a bountiful saffron harvest.
If the BJP loses its primacy here its experiment with its not very covert sectarian politics is over. Its chances in 2019 are then seriously imperiled.
The Congress is in retreat everywhere in the country. If it gets more MLA seats now it will be because it clung on to Samajwadi party leader Akhilesh Yadav’s coattails. There is now no Indian state where the Congress has primacy. In the big states of UP and Bihar it is a coattail party. The AAP is muscling in some other regions just as it muscled in Delhi and Goa at the cost of the Congress.
Shortly after the AAP victory in Delhi n 2015 I had written that the AAP victory was more due to the wipeout of the Congress than due to any precipitate decline of the BJP base. My comment attracted the ire of many AAP trolls. (Their tribe is increasing.)
But let the numbers do the talking. The AAP popular vote went up from 29.5% in 2013 to 54.3% in 2015. The comparative BJP figures were 34% to 32.7%, a decline of a mere 1.3%. The Congress on the other hand declined from 24.6% in 2013 to 9.7% in 2015. Others like BSP, JD (U) and independents got really crushed from 11.9% to 3.3%. Clearly the AAP took away space from the Congress and the so-called secular opposition. The message is clear.
The AAP is now poised to expand into other states. Gujarat is next in its sights. It is going straight for Narendra Modi’s jugular. It is this kind of daring that endears AAP to the youth. I am veering around to the view that the main challenge to the Congress now is not from the BJP, despite its exhortations of a Congress Mukt Bharat, but the AAP that is rapidly positioning itself as the party to go to in many supposed Congress strongholds.
For decades opposition politics in India centered on finding an alternative to the Congress. This activity consisted mainly of forging improbable, impossible and often even unholy alliances. After 1991, anti-Congressism was not longer a binding force. The post VP Singh era of the cobbled up alliances with the Congress, as part of it did not inspire too much confidence either. The BJP expanded into the subsequent unrelenting anti-Congress space. It still holds this space. Ironically the parties that once were united by Lohia’s battle cry against parivarvaad have now become parivar-dominated parties.
In states like Orissa, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, UP, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana the regional parties have reduced the Congress to a rump though from time to time they team up with the Congress tagging on as their junior partner. These state elections will definitely see the Congress getting more seats than it had in Punjab and UP. But it will not mean any long-term gains for it. In UP it will be entirely thanks to the SP and in Punjab it will have to hold off the now apparently relentless AAP expansion.
The other non-BJP and Congress parties are now squeezing what is left with the Congress, i.e. states where it is either the dominant or next leading party. Soon it seems like it will only be in MP that the BJP and Congress will face each other as the two dominant parties. This is rather ironical considering that LK Advani, who strategized the rise of the BJP to power, would from time to time loudly contemplate a two party democracy in India, and that this would be ideal for India. He never wanted a Congress Mukt Bharat. He saw the emergence of a right of center and left of center contested polity as the ideal. But this alas, is not going to happen. What we are going to get seems to be a contested polity between an ultranationalist rightwing and a formation of populist regional forces.
Ironically enough it is the AAP that gave hope of new politics and political style. Will it be able to regain its idealism and hold its course? India now has 120 million voters in the18-23 age group. By 2019 another 130 million will join this phalanx. Truly the future belongs to the youth. Over 60% of India lives below a universally accepted poverty standard. India's poverty line is a starvation line. Almost the entire youth cohort now is educated, having benefitted by the huge expansion of the education system. Their aspirations and the popular aspirations have changed. To grow the AAP has to uncompromisingly nurture this and build on this. It has so far done this fairly well in Delhi despite the gang up of the BJP establishment and establishment media against it. But can it replicate it nationwide?
But PM Modi unites the opposition, like Indira Gandhi once did. That time the RSS joined it against the Congress. Now the Congress is with it against the BJP. The temptations for the AAP to team up against the BJP are many. But the moment it gets sucked into the caste permutations of the BSP, SP, RJD and JD (U), and gets drawn into their coalitional politics, it will become just another political party. Another ayaram, gayaram party.