Rewind, Refresh Or Re-install

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 12 2004, 05:30am hrs
Who is going to win in the next elections Normally, this question keeps political analysts of my ilk rather profitably employed and self-importantly engrossed during the campaign season. But this time around there appears little room for suspense or pompous prognostications. Unless a major scam explodes against the ruling party, the BJP looks set to win. The India Today poll in fact gives the NDA almost two-thirds majority.

This appears somewhat stretched. BJPs options for organic growth are limited and it needs a combination of three scenarios: 1) a drop in the fear among minorities, 2) aligning with strong regional allies, and 3) multiparty contests where the anti-BJP vote gets divided. But it is nevertheless riding high while the Congress is much weaker. The former certainly has an edge in alliances, and no matter how hard the Congress tries to overcome its history of being a grudging if not unreliable partner, bitter memories are hard to erase with new terms of endearment.

And so, even if recent polls overestimate the BJPs gain, the result appears somewhat established. And behind all this is one single issue, the economy. Far more than the recent assembly polls or Mr Vajpayees image or even the contentious debate over Sonia Gandhi, it is the 8 per cent economic growth projection and the attendant feel good factor, partially hyperbolic but partially true, which offers such a propitious context to the BJP.

Which brings up the question, who is really better for the economy, the BJP or Congress

If you look closely, there has been an unprecedented re-shifting of focus in the BJP, a party which earlier never got too passionate over economic matters and attacked the Congress all its life over honesty, transparency and public accountability that is, almost everything but economic policy. Right till the 1998 election, the BJPs economic policy was reactionary. In fact, in the 1998 campaign, party leaders echoed the following swadeshi one-liner: we want foreign investment in computer chips, and not in potato chips. The Congress was then the progressive agent of change, calling for a strategic redefinition of the public sectors role and scope and even seeking to privatise railways.

Six years hence, there has been a double flip. The BJP has now become far more committed to economic reforms than any other group, perhaps because it now has greater vested interest. After all, it not just a party of Hindutva but also of the middle-class, industrialists and IT entrepreneurs. And one of Mr Vajpayees biggest achievements, rarely acknowledged in the high decibel secular-versus-communal slugfest, is the fact that he has managed to tame all those fiery Socialists in his coalition, a group reflexively anti-globalisation and anti-privatisation.

Even more broadly, the BJP has been forced to become pan-Indian and centrist in character. Except Kerala, all other major states have voted BJP candidates to the Parliament. Whether it is this or the sobriety of power or the experience of facing multiple crises, the party reflects less ideology today, and more nuance and prudence.

The Congress party, on the other hand, in an attempt to make a comeback after being kept out of power for eight long years, appears frantic and is once again toying with measures and propositions from its socialist heydays. It has opposed privatisation and has desired affirmative action in the private sector for the socially backward.

Most people have noticed this parallel transformation and the irony resulting from it: the old war-horse of Indian politics, one that delivered political independence and economic reforms to the country, is now on the defensive and compelled to flirt with old cliches, while the party once feared for its reactionary posture and a worst-case social scenario is on a charm offensive and appears so much more open to change.

In the end, a BJP win would perhaps be good news for Indias economic trajectory and would inject far less uncertainty and far greater confidence in investors, both domestic and foreign, as also Indias trade and diplomatic partners. A BJP win in effect would represent much needed continuity in a country which has seen far too many regimes and policy flip-flops. Among others, a fresh mandate may provide the spur to both privatisation and to urgently required changes to labour and banking laws, or at least take away the excuse not to act.

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