February 22, 2020
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Circus On Notice

The big national parties look lost in their own vortex. Will they wake up, do a rebound by 2014?

Circus On Notice
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Circus On Notice

Is it just a small crisis, a minor hump in the trajectory, or a full-blown existential impasse? Politics plays on but the reality is that the national parties of modern India are in perpetual decline. There is no leadership that inspires, no plan for revival as yet revealed. There is only arithmetic in this era of coalitions and currently the Congress managers are heaving a huge sigh of relief for finally crossing the bump of a presidential election that will soon have Pranab Mukherjee shifting to Rashtrapati Bhavan, barring unlikely mishaps. Meanwhile, the BJP has endured another brazen spectacle of fratricidal politics in Karnataka that increases the caste cleavage between the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, climaxing in the swearing in of yet another CM, the third in the last year.

Both must breathe a little easy after these by now commonplace contortions in their politics. Off the record, members of both parties agree that neither seems to be headed to any glorious position in contemporary reality. But a few things have changed, although the overall picture of drift continues with the two principal parties of India. The more significant political outcome of the presidential poll is not Pranabda’s elevation but the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s continuation in the post till 2014 is now a certainty. There is no alternative and, moreover, Rahul Gandhi does not seem to want power.

Within the party, the ripples have begun. The jockeying for positions has begun as changes are expected, both in the organisation and government. A ministerial expansion and reshuffle is on the cards. Most bets are placed on this happening after the monsoon session of Parliament that will begin in the first week of August (dates are still to be announced) and continue for a month.

Linked to this will be an organisational reshuffle and although there has been talk of a ‘Kamaraj Plan’ which envisages ministers returning to the organisation, it’s really not that simple. Some like law minister Salman Khurshid have offered to return to the party (after the UP assembly poll debacle in March this year), but there is great cynicism about such postures and a widespread belief that no one really wants things to go that way. Says a veteran at the Congress national HQ at 24 Akbar Road, “Every time change is in the air, there is a great sense of expectation and positioning. You will see stories being planted about so and so becoming finance minister, about how another individual wants to serve the party, a third pledging allegiance to the Gandhi family in a roundabout way.” It’s the language of Congress leaders, a grammar they understand well.

“National parties don’t have the mandate. Getting a total majority to form government is a distant dream for all parties.” Seema Upadhyaya, BSP MP, Agra “The big national leaders have faded, people have no faith in them. They are more connected to regional netas.” Kalyan Banerjee, TMC MP, Serampore, WB

“Look at the BJP in Karnataka, a third CM in a year. Can any party have national credibility in such an age?” Uma Shankar Singh, RJD MP, Maharajganj “The cost of polls in south India is affecting all national parties. Compared to that, Bihar is a model in low-cost polls.” B.K. Hariprasad, Cong Gen Secy

All this happens in the backdrop of the Rahul Gandhi promise not becoming a reality. So last week when Khurshid was quoted as saying Rahul had only put in a “cameo appearance”, he was actually saying on record what others say off it. Short of any real-time info on members of the dynasty, there are only intelligent guesses (from individuals who are usually right) that Rahul will not be posited at the front of a ship that is expected to sink by 2014. At best he will shoulder greater organisational responsibility. Meanwhile, he is apparently engaged in getting reports from district/local bodies leaders about the state of the party.

Those reports cannot be good. The party may have displayed skills in arranging surplus votes of elected representatives for the presidential polls, but is having no luck with the ordinary voter. After the debacle in the Andhra bypolls, there was another dismal performance in the UP local body elections. The internal assessments give this picture—falling stock in Congress-ruled Rajasthan, no chance in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, close contest in BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, defeat in BJP-ruled Gujarat, close call in BJP-ruled Himachal Pradesh, poor performance in Congress-NCP ruled Maharashtra. (What happens in UP and Bihar in a national election will, however, be determined by the party leaderships and issues that prevail at the time. For instance, positioning Narendra Modi at a national level will certainly change equations in the heartland.)

Meanwhile, one would imagine that the grand old party would be seeing a major opportunity in the misrule displayed in Karnataka where the BJP rules and does it badly. Yet the Congress’s Karnataka unit is in a bad shape. As a state leader says, “Our hopes are pinned on BJP misrule, not on our abilities. We expect to gain only because there will be great anti-incumbency.” Outlook has accessed an internal Congress report on the state of affairs in Karnataka. The long-winded ‘Fact-finding committee on cross-voting during the biennial elections to the Karnataka legislative council held on 11th June’ gives a fascinating insight into party factionalism (it had expected four candidates to win but one lost due to cross-voting). The panel found that “indiscipline” caused the defeat. Four MLAs went on record to suggest “narco-analysis or brain-mapping of the MLAs to establish truth and their credibility”. The committee wrote that it “appreciates the MLAs’ suggestion” but “feels it is not advisable to subject every MLA to narco-analysis.” It’s almost comical to see the Congress struggling in what should have been a win-win situation.

The consolation prize here is, of course, the confusion and lack of direction in the BJP. At the core, there are both similarities and differences in the crises the two parties face. But Karnataka is not really a reflection of the BJP’s overall strength. The party has strong bases in the regions. So, on balance, if one does some quick arithmetic, nationally it seems poised to do better than the Congress. It also has a strong cadre base which is why it does well in local body elections (the cadre matters in small contests). Yet the BJP too has no plans for growth. There is talk of the RSS and a section of the party positioning Modi as a national leader, on the argument that he meets the urban voters’ stereotype of a “strong, fix-it” leader. But in a coalition era, significant allies who may want to do business with the BJP could find it hard to do so with Modi. This would particularly be the case in a pre-poll scenario, although things could change were the BJP to cross 150 seats in Parliament. So, the current status is that the leadership issue lies unresolved, waiting to be determined by realpolitik closer to the general elections in 2014. It is a period of floating and testing the Modi card. Besides, when it comes to the leadership question, there is always the RSS’s role in vetoing or supporting a particular individual.

In the Congress, a dynasty is in place but no one knows any longer when the anointed one will take the reins. As for the issue of state leaders, the Congress has a different approach to the BJP (which projects chief ministers and specific individuals). Because of infighting in the units, the Congress leaves it to Sonia’s choice post-election. Perhaps the leadership question is so vexing for both parties because it’s almost impossible now to find a pan-Indian figure. Meanwhile, in the regions the strong leaders get stronger by the day.

By Saba Naqvi with Chandrani Banerjee

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