Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party and its presumptive prime ministerial candidate should his mummy, Sonia, deem the situation ripe for his elevation (because Manmohan Singh is history — “a good man who turned out to be a good-for-nothing man” in Arun Shourie’s memorable words), called his party the voters’ “default option”. Default, by definition, implies failure of an alternative. In the context of the looming general elections, it means that if the Bharatiya Janata Party does not secure a “critical mass” of at least 185 seats in the Lok Sabha, smaller parties would choose once again to rally to the Congress party’s moth-eaten standard, and help it to continue with its policies that have left the country diminished and derelict.
Congress party’s optimism may not be warranted, however, because Prakash Karat has clarified that under no circumstances would the Left Front, still chafing from Manmohan Singh’s 2008 “betrayal” on the nuclear deal with the United States, side with Sonia Congress. It will stoke Mulayam Singh’s PM ambitions; after all his Yadav family party has all along sustained its samajwadi (socialist) pretensions by rubbing up against the Communist parties for a semblance of ideological respectability. But Mulayam has hurt his bonafides by enabling the Congress party to survive in office for nine long years. He cannot afford to botch up his record further by signalling in any way the likelihood of SP propping up a Sonia Congress-led future dispensation, and still expect the Left Front to help hoist him into 7, Race Course Road. In this competition for support of the Left parties in parliament, Mulayam and Sonia Congress are rivals.
With a reviving BJP in Uttar Pradesh, moreover, the coalition Mayawati had stitched together is falling apart with the Brahmin and Muslim voters she had attracted gravitating towards the BJP and Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party (SP) respectively. The underway “polarisation” of the electorate, precipitated principally by SP’s over-the-top strategy of wooing Muslim voters, is reflected in the SP member of parliament Kamal Farooqui’s astonishing charge that the recent arrest of the Indian Mujahideen founder Yasin Bhatkal was because he was Muslim and not a terrorist mastermind. A polarised electorate has, for the duration of the next general elections season, thus become irreversible. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ayodhya yatra fiasco, in this context, was a minor distraction, successful only in terms of alerting the majority community to the over-tilt in the approaches of the SP and Congress. This leaves Mayawati with her backward caste (BC) support base, part of which may be drawn to Narendra Modi’s BC roots burnished by his proven administrative acumen and political success. For reasons of UP politics, moreover, Mayawati may be pushed, post-elections, towards tying up with BJP.
These political developments have brightened BJP’s prospects, except for the habit of some of the current party leaders to score self goals and to try and trip up the only worthwhile leader with the chance to make good, the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. Many of them may be experienced in the ways of parliament, but simply do not have the mass pull or reach and, more significantly, the ability and the rhetorical wherewithal to connect with the people in the elemental sort of way that Modi effortlessly does. The Congress party’s stratagem of using Gujarat Police DIG DG Vanzara’s resignation letter to implicate Modi in the “fake encounter” case is shoddier still, considering it has rendered the Intelligence Bureau’s modus operandi suspect and made fighting the terrorist menace hostage to its political objective of derailing Modi, whose candidature it fears.
The fact is BJP without Modi helming it seems bereft of new thoughts and policy ideas. Indeed, the parliamentary debates on the food security and land acquisition bills showed up BJP as Congress lite. If institutionalised access to food for the poor, for instance, was deemed a political imperative then it was incumbent on the parliamentary BJP leaders to have fleshed out the party’s own food security programme based on its Chhattisgarh model, worked out the financial liability aspects at least in skeletal terms, and mounted a sustained public campaign on its behalf in the months leading up to the monsoon session of parliament. It would have highlighted the hollowness of the Congress policy of merely bestowing the “right to food” without explaining just what quantum of financial resources would be necessary, how these would be mustered, and the manner in which the central government would help the states defray the massive expense. By forcing the ruling party to bend to the contours of its more practicable Chhattisgarh model-motivated programme, BJP could have legitimately claimed the laurels for the ensuing legislation, and enabled it to turn this issue into electoral gold, rather than reducing chief minister Raman Singh’s flagship Chhattisgarh scheme to a mere debating point.
Surely, it is the main opposition party’s duty to anticipate the agenda of the treasury benches and provide the people with alternative solutions on issues of national import and impact. This, unfortunately, BJP did not do. The irony of the absent right-wing policy alternative to the Congress’s usual unviable nanny-state populist spendthrift ideas is that a manifestly more thoughtful but politically far weaker Swatantra Party led by C R Rajagopalachari provided much richer fare by way of policy choices and political contestation to Nehru in the Fifties as did Piloo Mody to Indira Gandhi in the Sixties.
Narendra Modi’s outlining his “India First” philosophy predicated on economic growth and less government, less corruption but more efficient and effective administration to deliver good governance can be juxtaposed against Rahul Gandhi’s “celebrating” the “victory” offered by the land acquisitions bill to Odisha tribals opposing bauxite and iron ore mining. The contrast between Modi’s and Rahul’s visions, between prosperity spurred by opening up opportunities for economic growth, and meagre returns to a benighted people from a calculated policy of handouts to keep them dependent on mai-baap sarkar cannot be starker. Indians confront the clearest electoral choice since Independence.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com