The primary fault-line of Indian politics since 1947 used to be Congress versus the rest. This changed abruptly after the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Since then, the primary question has been whether one is for or against the BJP. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s departure from the BJP-led NDA turns a new leaf in this story.
Anti-Congressism helped the ascent of the BJP. It was socialist leader George Fernandes — then Nitish Kumar’s political guru — who went to President Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1996 to demand that BJP stalwart AB Vajpayee be invited to form the government when the saffron party emerged as the biggest in the Lok Sabha.
Fernandes took pride in the fact that he ended the BJP’s untouchability.
He said before the 1998 elections: “How long are we going to keep the Babri Mosque as a kind of cut-off date to decide our political activities in the country? How long are we going to treat any political party as an untouchable? December 6, 1992 (demolition of the Babri Masjid) is considered a cut-off date. If that is a cut-off date, for how long will you hold on to that position?”
This argument helped the BJP gather a dozen allies in 1998 and 22 by 1999 — all bound by their antipathy to the Congress.
The BJP’s growth continued until the 2002 Gujarat riots. Bihar Dalit leader Ramvilas Paswan was the first to quit the NDA, citing the riots as the reason.
Gujarat 2002 has become the new cut-off date in Indian politics as the BJP has been losing allies one after another since then, all of them citing Gujarat as the reason for severing ties with the BJP. In fact, Gujarat was the primary catalyst for the formation of the UPA in 2004.
The carnage in Gujarat resulted in something that the Babri Masjid demolition did not — several parties shed their hostility to the Congress to stop the BJP.
It started with the Left, which opposed the Congress in Kerala and West Bengal but supported it at the centre. Regional parties, born to oppose the Congress, also gathered around it.
Not only did the UPA survive the first term, it returned for a second with a larger majority.
In the past two years, however, support for the UPA has been unravelling. While the SP and BSP — rivals in Uttar Pradesh — support the UPA at the centre, two key allies — the DMK and the Trinamool Congress — have left the ruling alliance.
Serial scams, governance drift, a sagging economy and soaring prices — everything seemed to be going wrong for the Congress. That is when the BJP introduced the new fault-line.
This was highlighted when Nitish Kumar reacted to Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s rise in the BJP and quit the NDA, marking the departure of the last socialist leader from the saffron camp.
Modi promises to be the leader who will set the agenda for the 2014 general elections. His image of a driver of economic growth in Gujarat through decisive governance and his rhetorical skills will immensely help the BJP draw a significant chunk of anti-incumbency votes in its favour.
But while Modi is trying to set the agenda, he himself is becoming the agenda. His track record and even his backward caste have become a point for intense public debate.
Modi’s emergence as the agenda itself has relegated all other issues to the backburner. The Congress could not have asked for more. Modi certainly lifts the BJP. Unfortunately for him and his party, he’s likely to lift the Congress as well.