Political Prospects After Gujarat

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Apr 11 2002, 05:30am hrs
It was only about three years ago that most polls showed Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the tallest leader in the country, and the BJP as the overwhelming favourite on key issues of corruption, probity and national security. After making a triumphant comeback in the general elections, the BJP was riding high over Kargil, low inflation, a bumper crop, improved relations with Western powers and peace within the Sangh family. And despite Congress wins in local elections in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, the prospect of Sonia Gandhi ever becoming Prime Minister appeared so improbable. But that was then, and Narendra Modi may have changed all that. In fact, he may be to Congress now what Sonia was then to the BJP, its best friend.

It has become quite a task to keep up with the controversies surrounding the Gujarat chief minister as the saying goes, every morning is the dawn of a fresh venality and even more frustrating to see why Mr Vajpayee or Mr Advani, the PM-in-waiting, do not step in. Opposition voices are having a field day hurling strong and unedifying accusations; every anti-BJP polemist, and his uncle, has now penned an article somewhere on how he or she is ashamed to be a Hindu and how it is impossible for them to ever sing saare jahaan se achha. Contrived, opportunistic and provocative as some of these accusations are appalling neglect, gross insensitivity and criminal complicity, yes, but surely not genocide or pogrom the fact is that the Modi government is both highly inept and deeply communal. Everyone has now had it up to the gills with the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Not only has Gujarat hurt the sensibilities of most Indians, they have also harmed the image of the country. In a matter of just a month, Indias arduous but partially successful projection of its Kashmir case risks being seriously undone. If the killing of so many citizens is indeed a blot on the nation, as even the Prime Minister bemoans, why then does he not ask for Modis removal, at least to assuage public anger Why does he continue to insist that the problem only resides in the minds of overseas Indians

These events in fact reflect more on the rapidly detached ways of our Prime Minister. The Congress is perhaps figuring out the same thing: Vajpayees personal charisma, legendary draw as a vote-catcher and mental grasp are no longer a threat. Congress politicians now have that extra spring in their footsteps; suddenly, you find them everywhere, full of hope.

But the Congress is still very far from fourth base. The BJP is fast losing sheen, but the Congress is not necessarily gaining and is still vastly unprepared to face general elections.

Or to squarely address the issue of what to do next: outside of some major national catastrophe, the Congress can only come to power through a coalition. Sonia Gandhi has steered the party to many state victories and under her charge the Congress is midway through a positive generational and gender shift, but her political mettle and wider acceptability are still to be tested.

On the one hand, there is still that huge cultural divide between Sonia and leaders of the erstwhile Third Front, and on the other the reality remains that these parties are rooted in anti-Congress sentiments at many levels. They are first rivals to each other, then to the Congress, and only then to the BJP. The BJP has been around too long, or so it seems, and everyone outside the NDA just hates it. But just because no one is raising the issue of Congress corruption or its other sins doesnt mean they will not in future. The Mulayam Singhs and Harkishan Surjeets are cagey on whether they will support Sonia as PM, and it is unlikely that they will lend outside support to a future Congress regime.

Perversely, it even suits many state Congress chieftains to have a weak Congress leadership and a NDA government at the centre. This allows them a free rein in their state, plus the political cover for any misgovernance.

While there are no clear signs of what happens next or who comes in after Vajpayee, three things are more certain. First, unless the BJP leadership acts soon to reverse the alienation of its urban and moffusil constituency, it may not even end up with a role of a kingmaker after the next elections, let alone king. The defeat in Delhi MCD elections is a pointer of things to come. Second, a wait-and-watch policy is perhaps the smartest for Sonia Gandhi, allowing her to consolidate her momentum, but it also puts her at odds with many in her party who are aging fast (physically or politically) and want another quick stab at ministerial authority. The Congress benches in Rajya Sabha are full of unelectable politicians who are itching to provoke a political crisis. And lastly, the clearest sign of an impending election will come when we see a trickle (and then a flood) of leaders leaving the BJP for greener pastures, similar to what happened in the Congress in 1997.

Subhash Agrawal is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors