The garden city of Bangalore was painted in saffron over this weekend. Top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended the party’s national executive over the past three days to deliberate on strategies to win the ensuing state assembly and national elections.
Bangalore provides a perfect backdrop as the saffron party, once seen as just a north Indian party, rode to power in Karnataka earlier this year on its own steam and would now love to replicate that success on the national scene when India goes to polls in about six months.
But, is the principal opposition party, which had last ruled India between 1998 and 2004, in any position to make a comeback in New Delhi? Can it really regain its status as the single largest party, winning the 180 seats that it won in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha polls, and have a realistic shot at governing India?
My sense from Bangalore is that the overriding sentiment in the party today seems to be one of a curious mix of hope and despair: hope stemming from the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s abysmal track record in inflation management and internal security, and sheer despair at the BJP’s utter inability to profit from the UPA’s notable governance failures.
The BJP has, so far, totally failed to make any concrete progress in clinching alliances crucial to its ascent to power. Above all, the party is plagued by self-doubt about its prospects, a feeling that has aggravated after some of its MPs deserted it to help the UPA win the recent parliamentary trust vote comfortably.
The BJP national executive saw the party come out with a nuanced position on the nuclear deal that wouldn’t hurt its traditional support group, the Indian middle classes, who are seen as generally favouring the nuclear push. The BJP, after months of bashing the nuclear deal, finally restricted its attacks to bashing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In my view, the national executive meet also reinforced the perception that the BJP is a prisoner of its own ideology and cannot expand its horizon by articulating the concerns of the poor, the farmers and the middle classes, who have borne the brunt of soaring inflation and poor governance.
The party is hoping to come to power entirely on the UPA’s failures, but has failed in formulating a governance agenda that can connect with the common man’s concerns and provide an alternative vision. Worse still, the BJP is yet to exhibit any imaginative approach to even highlighting the UPA’s failures.
As I see it, the BJP has these three key problems.
The BJP of today lacks the dynamism and optimism that filled it when it rose to being a party of governance in the 1990s.
Although the party has won a series of assembly polls in the last four years, and is in a comfortable position in the assembly polls scheduled for later this year in key states, it has no momentum for a cohesive national campaign.
In today’s coalition politics, success depends on forging electorally profitable alliances. The BJP is still unable to make any headway.
In many cases, state leaders are holding the party hostage to their personal interests. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, leaders, such as Kalyan Singh and Vinay Katiyar, are opposing a tie-up with the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal, or RLD, and have even abstained from attending the national executive meet to protest.
In this key state, the RLD is the only potential alliance partner for a considerably weakened BJP. An alliance could be a win-win for both parties, and more so for the BJP, as an RLD switch to the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance in the making is likely to push the BJP to fourth slot, behind Mayawati’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and even the Congress. Striking such key alliances early could have the potential to inject optimism and dynamism into the party and help the BJP attract new allies elsewhere.
Even as the BJP is creating no new alliances, some existing allies are becoming more demanding and less trustworthy. The party’s relations with allies such as the Shiv Sena, Janata Dal (United) and the Biju Janata Dal are not very cordial and some party leaders fear that these allies may not work wholeheartedly for the success of BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha polls.
If there is a growing sense that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will not come to power at the Centre after the next Lok Sabha polls, the NDA is likely to disintegrate, as many allies will gravitate from it in search of power.
If the BJP has to have any realistic chance of coming to power in 2009, it has to get its act together quickly and come up with an imaginative agenda that can appeal to a nationwide electorate.
Otherwise, the party, known for its championing of the cause of many a god in the past, will end up having to pray for divine intervention, come national elections.
To read all of G.V.L Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/thebottomline
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm.Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org