Harold Wilson, who won four general elections as UK’s Labour Party leader and spent seven years and 279 days as prime minister, once said: “A week is a long time in politics.”
Developments in the last week of 2007, which have dramatically altered the political situation in the country, prove him right even in the Indian context.
Until recently, the Congress was euphoric that internal fissures in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an ailing patriarch Atal Behari Vajpayee would help the grand old party win a majority and let it rule at the Centre even after 2009 polls. However, the situation has turned full circle after the BJP declared L.K. Advani as its prime ministerial candidate and the morale-shattering defeat suffered by the Congress in the Gujarat assembly polls.
The Gujarat defeat has largely been interpreted in political circles as underscoring how the party’s leading lights, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, can attract crowds, but are unable to convert them into votes.
The Congress party leaders who, until a fortnight back, appeared confident of a bright political future are suddenly exhibiting all signs of uncertainty.
The buzz in the ruling United Progressive Alliance or the UPA is that the Congress party lacks the vitality and the leadership to come to power at the Centre whenever elections to the Lok Sabha are held.
In sharp contrast, buoyed by the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh electoral victories, the BJP has regained confidence and has begun preparations for the Lok Sabha polls in earnest, even as it has become evident that the clouds of a mid-term election have blown over.
At a meeting of top party functionaries organized by Advani to discuss Lok Sabha preparations about a week ago, the party decided to highlight the “weak” and “indecisive” leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even as it began its preparations for the elections. While Singh is considered to be an honest leader with unquestioned personal integrity, he is widely perceived to be a weak prime minister.
Among parties, realization has dawned that the “leadership factor” has become decisive and winning elections is becoming increasingly difficult without projecting a popular leader, as party loyalty is becoming passé and individual leaders are influencing voting choices more than ever.
Changing demographics and ever-younger electorates are contributing to this trend. For a large section of the new young voter, it is performance that counts. With parties looking similar, electoral choice is governed more by the qualities of a leader, his appeal and the public trust in the leader, referred to as coat-tail effect in the lexicon of psephologists.
Having declared Advani as its prime ministerial candidate, the BJP is intent on focusing the election on the leadership of Advani—the chief architect of the party’s emergence on the national scene—as a “strong” and “effective” alternative.
This, the party calculates, will work for it as the UPA and its Third Front allies will be pressurized into naming their prime ministerial candidates.
Lack of leadership with mass appeal is a larger malaise that afflicts the Congress party in all the states. While the BJP projected its leaders in the prime ministerial and many chief ministerial races, and derived a huge benefit from it, rarely, if ever, in recent times, has the Congress party declared its prime ministerial or chief ministerial candidates before an election.
Declaring Vajpayee as its prime ministerial candidate gave the BJP a huge lead in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996, 1998 and 1999. Similarly, announcing Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, the National Democratic Alliance’s Nitish Kumar in Bihar as chief ministerial candidates has given the party and the coalition a huge advantage over its rivals.
For years, the Congress was a huge beneficiary of stalwarts, such as Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, pulling in votes for the party. They were charismatic and could swing elections in favour of the party. But neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi has the same charisma.
Across the party, the Congress has systematically prevented the emergence of mass leaders. Even leaders who have contributed to the party’s success and growth have managed to survive in that position after swearing their loyalty to the Gandhi family.
The problem for the Congress is that when their leaders are “allowed” to become mass leaders, they tend to break away from the party and float successful regional outfits. This was the case with the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, and the now defunct Moopanar-Chidambaram-led Tamil Maanila Congress in Tamil Nadu.
In contrast, the BJP faces no such threat. Even acknowledged mass leaders, such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati and Madanlal Khurana who moved out of the saffron party, have failed to succeed when they launched new political outfits.
The BJP is expected to run a presidential-style campaign focusing on the leadership of Advani in the next polls. If the party’s gamble works, the UPA and the Third Front parties will have a serious gap in their arsenal.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org