Sunday, February 03, 2008

It's too early to pop the cork
(In Economic Times, 2 Feb, 2008)

After winning the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the BJP leaders are already talking about getting back to power at the Centre. It is only natural that the party and its supporters behave that way. The BJP, after all, saw things the same way after the party won the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in November 2003 and advanced the general elections to May 2004. The rest is history.

The BJP may have reasons to celebrate the verdict from Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The party, after all, was pushed into a low after its debacle in May 2004. The situation worsened with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s failing health; its disastrous performance in Uttar Pradesh contributed immensely to the low morale of its ranks across the country. The Gujarat elections definitely came as a morale booster to its ranks and particularly so after the media suggested a Congress revival in Gujarat.

All this, however, is different from concluding that the BJP will emerge as the natural choice in the next general elections. And this is so despite the fact that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance remaining a rickety arrangement, creaking every moment and also the Left combine continuing to bark at Manmohan Singh and his regime. The fact is the political discourse, at the national level, continues to be guided by a set of factors that are specific to regions within the various states and fragmented in all senses of the term.

Take, for instance, the ground reality in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP is in no better position now than it was in May 2004. The contest from Uttar Pradesh remains between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. And it is most likely that the two parties will end up winning at least 60 Lok Sabha seats from out of the 80 seats from the state. That would mean that the Congress and the BJP will end up sharing only 20 seats from the state and this will be the same as it happened in May 2004.

Moreover, with Vajpayee now out of the scene, it is unlikely that the Brahmin votes will remain with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh; and in the emerging scheme of things, the BSP and the Congress could gain some more seats in the process and end up with a couple of seats more than they won last time. The fact is that Rajnath Singh, as party president, has failed to capture the imagination of the Rajputs and the reason is that it is now clear that Singh is there in that post only for symbolic reasons. The Samajwadi Party remains the favoured destination of the local lords from this community and a strong BSP will only further this trend.

The point is that the BJP was reduced to being the second largest party in this Lok Sabha primarily because it lost heavily from Uttar Pradesh in May 2004. From 29 in 1999, the BJP’s score from Uttar Pradesh was just 10 in 2004. The same is true about Bihar too. The BJP won just five Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2004 against its 1999 score of 23.

In other words, the BJP lost as many as 37 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh between 1999 and 2004; and this led to the fall in the party’s strength from 182 in 1999 to 138 in 2004. While there is no way that the party can hope to substantially improve its position in Uttar Pradesh, the scope for improvement in Bihar is only marginal. The anti-incumbency factor is bound to affect its prospects and Lalu Prasad Yadav is not yet a spent force in Bihar. The Janata Dal (U) and Nitish Kumar are no longer what they were in May 2005.

In addition to this, the BJP is in a pretty bad shape in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the two states from where the party had done pretty well in May 2004 and is most likely to lose, at least a handful of seats, in the next election. That would mean that the possible gains from Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab (where the party performed poorly in May 2004) will at best offset the losses from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

In Maharashtra too, the state of the Shiv Sena as well as the BJP after Pramod Mahajan’s death leaves little hope for a sweep; the BJP-Sena combine, in any case had won as many as 25 seats together in May 2004 and the tally could even come down the next time. As for Karnataka, the BJP certainly can hope to do well. But then, the fact is that the party had done pretty well in May 2004 too. It had won 18 Lok Sabha seats and even if things work the way its leaders wish, the gains cannot be more than a couple of seats.

The same is true of Gujarat too. The BJP had won 14 seats in May 2004 and even if it sweeps Gujarat, it will only help the party to offset the losses it is likely to suffer in Chhattisgarh.

The other states from where the BJP can hope for some accretion in its strength would be West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (if Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa oblige) and this too will be too little to take the party to its 1999 status of 182 seats. As for the possible allies, the BJP-led combine may look forward to an accretion in strength from the AIADMK (which is unrepresented in the Lok Sabha now) and the Trinamool Congress (which has only one MP now) as additions. The others — BJD, Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and the JD(U) — had done their best even in 2004 and the strength of these parties cannot increase substantially in the next elections.

They may at best retain the same numbers. And as for the Telugu Desam Party, the BJP can hope for its support only if it stays away from the Telengana state demand! All this will mean that the BJP, in order to head a ruling coalition will have to work hard on retaining its old allies and also to muster new ones.

While the first part of the task may not be too difficult given the fact that such parties as the Trinamool Congress, the TDP, the BJD and the JD(U) do not have any other option but to stay with the BJP, the second part seems difficult. The AIADMK is perhaps the only other party, apart from the old constituents of the 1999 NDA that seems prepared to team up with the BJP as of now. And the BJP leaders must, in fact, dread this ‘opportunity’ than celebrate it given their experience in February-March 1999. But then, the fact that the DMK has no other way than stick with the Congress (the Karunanidhi government will fall if the party decides to go with the BJP) also leaves the BJP with no other choice in Tamil Nadu.

The point is that the BJP’s buoyancy is certainly without basis, at least in the context in which things are today.


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