New Delhi: Reflecting the present fluidity in Indian politics, the Congress party has bounced back in the weeks after the 26 November terror attacks in Mumbai, just as the main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, after the electoral setbacks in Rajasthan and Delhi, begun to look vulnerable.
The outlook has become even more unpredictable with the Left, after its exit from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), beginning to chip away at the allies of both Congress and BJP as part of its designs to forge a so-called third front.
But analysts caution that this situation, too, could change rapidly as political parties prepare for the general election due by May.
Articulating the new bounce, senior party leader and parliamentary affairs minister Vayalar Ravi said: “Congress has improved its prospects to return to power after the assembly elections, which acted as a morale boost for the rank and file of the party. The party has come to a mood to campaign about the UPA government’s people-friendly programmes. Besides, this government has a positive image.”
Upbeat: A 26 November picture of Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Rajasthan. The Congress chief has directed all state units to submit lists of probable candidates by January-end. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
According to the minister, the government’s quick response after 26/11, in replacing home minister Shivraj Patil and former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and following this up with tough new anti-terror laws, has bolstered the public perception of the government, otherwise often accused of being soft on terror.
“We will improve our tally (currently 151 in the Lok Sabha). We may lose some seats in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and some smaller states. But we will better it in larger states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Our proposed electoral alliance with Samajwadi Party will help the party in Uttar Pradesh too,” Ravi claimed.
An upbeat Congress leadership is moving quickly to cement its strategy. At a meeting on 11 January, party chief Sonia Gandhi directed all state units to submit a list of probable candidates by the end of the month.
The BJP, which had been on the ascendancy for most of 2008, is seemingly struggling. Political analysts say the not-so-subtle challenges to the positioning of L.K. Advani as the party’s prime ministerial candidate has only further roiled prospects after the surprise rout in the state elections in Delhi.
The Congress believes that the choice of Advani, who is perceived to be ideologically more extreme, especially when compared with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will polarize minority votes in the country to its advantage.
“It is clear that there is a polarization among the electorate and the Congress is expected to get the edge in the Muslim-populated constituencies in states other than Uttar Pradesh,” said a senior Congress leader, who did not want to be identified.
Muslims constitute 13.4% of the total population in the country. According to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the oldest religious Muslim organization, Muslims are in a majority in at least eight Lok Sabha constituencies, while they are a deciding factor in around 80 constituencies.
A senior BJP leader, who did not want to be identified, said: “The party is in a bad shape. We have not improved our position at all. Internal feud is going to play against us in the coming elections, too.”
At the same time, the BJP has to face the growing restlessness among some constituents of the National Democratic Alliance—the coalition that had governed till 2004. Leaders of its major allies, such as the Janata Dal-United, or JD (U), and Biju Janata Dal, or BJD, privately admit they have “serious differences” with the BJP.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and other Left parties have publicly claimed they have received positive signals from some NDA allies keen to explore a third alternative at the Centre.
However, senior BJP leader Seshadri Chari defended his party. “The BJP has improved its position and the people have been convinced that the stance of the party on terrorism and economy were correct.”
“The UPA needed a drastic incident like the Mumbai attacks to fall in with our position that the country needs a strong law to prevent terrorism,” Chari said.
But analysts say the situation could still change ahead of the general election.
“The situation is fluid yet. We have to see how things shape up both on the political and economic front in the next few months,” said B.G. Varghese, political analyst and visiting professor, Centre for Policy Research.
Like the BJP, the Congress too may see ruptures in its existing coalition. Its relationship with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which is seeing a decline in popularity, is described by some insiders as rocky.
The Left, meanwhile, is stepping up efforts to form a non-BJP, non-Congress alternative.
“The emerging political situation in the last 10-15 years has proved that the era of one-party rule is over and there is an emerging multipolarity. In the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and the Congress together won only 283 seats, which is just a little more than the halfway mark in the 543-member House. Thus, in such a situation, a third front becomes much more relevant,” said S. Ramachandra Pillai, CPM politburo member.
Even while admitting that the UPA has an edge over NDA, Varghese said, “The BJP did make significant gains in the recent by-elections in Karnataka and swept the Jammu sector in the J&K polls. However, the party does seem to be on the backfoot right now, but all this could change.”
Arguing similarly, Bidyut Chakrabarty, a professor in the department of political science at Delhi University, said, “Both the Congress and the BJP do not have any reason to be happy about the assembly election results, because they were a comment on the state governments. But the BJP is in disarray and it might have calculated its chances without taking into account the realities.”