On that record, the BJP-led NDA government deserves to fail in the next examination. On that record, the planets that orbit around the BJP sun must move away. And on that record, the principal Opposition party, the Congress, must scent victory.
Nothing of that kind has happened. Why
The emergence of the BJP albeit a right-wing, Hindu party contained the promise of ushering in a two-party system. I had hoped that the BJP would be a right of centre party and the Congress would position itself at the left of centre. If that had happened the other parties would have, in course of time, ceased to be relevant, at least so far as Parliamentary elections were concerned. State-specific parties like the TDP, DMK, AIADMK, Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena would have continued to remain relevant because they are the party-in-opposition to the Congress in their respective states. Given time, the BJP, a major player at the Centre, could have extended its sphere of influence and, in due course, may have displaced the state-specific parties and become the party-in-opposition to the Congress. The two-party system at the Centre could have been replicated in most of the states as well.
That would have still left the two Communist parties and their friends (in what is compendiously called the Left). The Communist parties especially the CPI(M) are well-entrenched in Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura. It may be possible to defeat them in an election, but they have shown enough resilience and adaptability to survive in India even after the downfall of Communist regimes all over the world.
The BJP has conducted itself contrary to conventional wisdom. Without saying so, it has forsworn any ambition of emerging as a major political party in key states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal and even Uttar Pradesh. It occupies little political space in Kerala, Punjab and Haryana. The BJP is content to forge partnerships with state-specific parties in return for a few Parliamentary seats and the promise of support to form (and lead) the Central government. The BJP is, politically speaking, the most promiscuous party in the political arena. Look at what it has achieved in Tamil Nadu The DMK, the AIADMK, the MDMK and the PMK are vying with each other to support the BJP! The BJPs remarkable strategy has ensured its lease on power at the Centre even while it is the ruling party in only two states and shares power in another.
The Congress had until Shimla adopted a strategy which is the exact opposite of the BJPs. The signal from the Congress was that it was confident of winning a Parliamentary election on its own.
The signal defied logic. Four states West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu account for 200 seats. On its own, the Congress can hope to win no more than 30 or 40 seats out of the 200. And even if the Congress was able to win one-half of the remaining 342 seats a tall order it could not have formed a government on its own strength. If the BJP was too promiscuous, the Congress was too virginal. For that it paid a price in the 1998 and 1999 elections to Parliament.
The BJP thinks it has a winning strategy, and it would pay dividends in the next elections too. The Congress was forced to reconsider its strategy and, therefore, offered a new deal at Shimla. Most political observers are agreed that if the BJP is able to keep its coalition partners and the Congress is unable to find coalition partners, 1998 or 1999 may repeat itself in 2004.
The BJP is faced with a glass ceiling. I would put it at 180 seats. It cannot win more unless it jettisons some of its current allies. Ajit Singh and Ram Vilas Paswan are out, but between them they count in perhaps half-a-dozen seats. If the DMK goes out the AIADMK will come in, and the result may be no loss, no gain. I cannot visualise any other partner leaving the NDA unless there is a defining moment of crisis.
The Congress Shimla offer has no takers so far, barring Laloo Prasad Yadavs RJD. But there is no reason to despair. There are still some powerful players in the field such as the NCP, the SP and perhaps even the DMK. The question is, what has the Congress to offer to them which they cannot acquire on their own Another key force will be the Communists. Conventional wisdom says that the Communist parties will never help the Congress win seats in any election. Political leadership lies in turning conventional wisdom on its head. The Communist parties too should ponder over the consequences of their deep-rooted anti-Congressism.
Ideally, two broad coalitions should fight the next Parliamentary elections. The cementing factor in the case of the NDA is power. The Congress can offer if it takes the task seriously both power and a programme. Writing a common programme that will be consistent with the Congress core beliefs and that will be attractive to the Left and the left-of-centre parties is not beyond the capacity of Congress leaders. If the Congress has any doubts, it should just ask Mr Gujral, Mr Deve Gowda and Mr Jaipal Reddy how the miracle was achieved in 1996! Compromises will be necessary, but it is compromise that will lead to opportunities. My hope is that if the next Parliamentary elections, and the next, and the next are fought by two coalitions, we may yet see the emergence of a two-party system in the next 15 to 20 years.
(The author is a former Union finance minister)