After polls, saffron space in political map shrinks

The parliamentary polls in 2014 had already given a historic mandate to the BJP and had almost decimated the Congress, the grand old party.

The political map of India, that is the Union of States, has suddenly changed. Before December 11, the day of counting of votes in the elections to the legislative assemblies of five states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram), saffron occupied the largest area in the map. At its peak ─ that is, when the Bharatiya Janata Party wrested Tripura from the CPI(M) in March this year-the BJP, either by itself or as part of an alliance, ruled in 21 out of 29 Indian states.

The parliamentary polls in 2014 had already given a historic mandate to the BJP and had almost decimated the Congress, the grand old party. The saffron party’s spectacular ascent in the country’s politics had even emboldened Prime Minister Narendra Modi to popularise the arrogant slogan: ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.

But after December 11, the saffron space in India’s political map has shrunk considerably. In contrast, the Congress, which registered wins in three Hindi heartland states, is back on a revival path.

Karnataka had put some life into the moribund party earlier this year.  It had managed to stitch together a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) to edge out the BJP’s claim to forming the government in the state. But its success was not decisive. After all, the BJP had emerged as the single largest party in the assembly, even though it had fallen short of winning a majority on its own. Therefore, the real good news for the Congress has come from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it has unseated incumbent BJP governments.

Now, the question on most Indians’ minds ─ also the question most India-watchers globally are asking ─ is this: how much has the voters’ mood changed ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections in the first half of 2019? Specifically, will the mood-change be strong enough to remove the BJP from power at the Centre? Another related question is: even if the BJP manages to form the government in New Delhi again, will Modi have a second term in the South Block?

Accurate answers to these questions are unpredictable. “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” said Niels Bohr, the wise and witty quantum physicist.

Nevertheless, three things can be clearly foreseen. One, whatever be the complexion and composition of the next government at the Centre, it will be quite unlike the one Modi is heading now. No party will enjoy a majority in the Lok Sabha. Hence, it will be a coalition government in the true sense of the term.

Two, even if it is a BJP-led coalition (National Democratic Alliance III?), the saffron party heading it will be much smaller than it currently is in NDA II, and probably even smaller than what it was in NDA I, which was led by the late A B Vajpayee. How much will the number of BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha shrink? The answer to this will determine whether Modi will be prime minister again, and also how strong the next PM will be.

Three, if the next government is not going to be led by the BJP, it can only be led by the Congress. The idea of a non-BJP, non-Congress (so-called ‘Third Front’) government deserves to be buried deep. It will be highly unstable, patently unrepresentative of the people’s mandate, and injurious to India’s development.

The Congress should not get carried away by its victories in the three states. True, Rahul Gandhi, its young and humble president, has enlivened the party with these wins. Hence, he will now onwards be taken far more seriously even by his detractors. However, both he and his partymen should remember that the Congress victories were made possible, to a considerable degree, by the anti-incumbency factor.

The BJP was in power in MP and Chhattisgarh since 2003. Even though it suffered a humiliating defeat in Chhattisgarh, in MP it gave a very tough fight to the Congress, thanks mainly to Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the widely admired outgoing chief minister. Even in Rajasthan, where the Congress was expected to sweep the polls, the BJP has won a respectable number of seats. What should particularly make the Congress sober in its hour of success is that the BJP’s vote share in these two states is almost equal to that of its main rival.

Congress leaders should keep another historical precedent in mind. In December 2003, the BJP had managed to register impressive wins in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. Nevertheless, the BJP-led NDA lost power at the Centre in the Lok Sabha polls held a few months later. Therefore, the BJP’s defeat in the three Hindi-speaking states should not lead anyone to conclude that it will surely lose power at the Centre in 2019.

No ‘BJP-mukt India’

To his credit, Rahul has said that he rejects the idea of a ‘BJP-mukt India’, even though he exuded confidence in his December 11 press conference that the combined opposition would defeat the BJP in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls.

As things stand, the lesson both the Congress and BJP should learn is the one that Vajpayee sought to emphasise through the concept of ‘Coalition Dharma’, when he was the prime minister (1998-2004). The main canon of this concept is that the party leading the ruling alliance should respect all its partners, including the numerically small ones, and remain faithful to the coalition’s ‘common minimum programme CMP’.

When NDA I adopted its ‘CMP’, it purposely described the NDA as a “political manifestation of the social diversity of India”. In other words, ‘Coalition Dharma’ is not simply a political or governance concept. It is a solemn recognition of the religious-caste-linguistic-ideological plurality.

Respectful cooperation within this plurality, with empathy for the deprived and marginalised, is the hallmark of our nation, the bedrock of our Constitution, and hence is the heartbeat of our democracy. The coming and going of parties in power, in states or at the Centre, is a natural electoral phenomenon. But when all political parties understand and practise the principles of ‘Coalition Dharma’, they will be able to better fulfil the aspirations of the people who elect them. It is also the only way to solve the gigantic problems before the nation.

(The writer, who was an aide to former prime minister A B Vajpayee, is associated with Forum for a New South Asia)

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After polls, saffron space in political map shrinks

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