There hasn’t been an election since 1989 without a mention of Bofors, Quattrocchi and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The Congress’s opponents simply wouldn’t allow these sorry chapters of graft and gore to fade from the public memory. These issues have become the underpinnings of the anti-Congress political architecture, the first potent manifestation of which was the post-Emergency Janata Party regime of the ‘70s. Their relevance in 2009 isn’t as much to the electorate as to political forces hard-pressed to translate the prevailing non-Congressism into strident anti-Congressism.
Non-Congressism, as opposed to anti-Congressism, is a political ploy for close ties of the kind the 1996-1998 United Front had with the Congress. It is, in fact, a reaction to the BJP’s pronouncedly sectarian incarnation of the early ‘90s. Since 1989, when the entire Opposition, including the CPI(M)-led Left, resigned from Parliament on the Bofors issue, the BJP became untouchable on two counts: the 1992 Babri demolition and the Gujarat riots a decade later.
Consequently, a robust-looking BJP gives rise to the secular-versus-communal debate. Anti-Congressism proliferates when the Congress is on the trot and the BJP lagging behind. There are two reasons for which elections to the 15th Lok Sabha haven’t clearly fallen in either category: one, the BJP declaring Narendra Modi as L.K. Advani’s political heir; two, the UPA’s pre-poll unravelling that made secular parties add decibels to anti-Congress voices and the latter’s conscious bid to downplay the Babri and post-Godhra violence (even after the Supreme Court ordered a probe against Modi) to avoid voter polarisation in UP and Gujarat.
In effective terms, non-Congressism is another name for anti-BJPism. For a realistic shot at government formation, the BJP needs to engineer overriding anti-Congressism to mop up support from other parties. It’s this impulse that defines the BJP’s promise of a treasure hunt in foreign banks and the resurrection of the CBI’s alleged prevarications in the Bofors kickbacks case. The crucial regime-formation round of these elections can go to the BJP only if it notches up an impressive tally of its own and the Congress is dumped and denigrated as a pariah. Conversely, the BJP, even as the single largest party, might end up repeating 1996, when it lost power for want of allies.
The Modi factor could arguably serve the BJP in the long run. But in immediate terms, his projection as Advani’s cover candidate for the PM’s office is a double-edged weapon. The ‘Modi-as-PM’ pitch may have fetched the party some electoral dividends in Gujarat. Chickens will come home to roost when Advani goes around seeking post-election tie-ups. He’d then have to face the question whether the support is for him or his ‘anointed’ successor. The tipping factor will be individual tallies of the truncated Congress and BJP-led alliances. But the bricks and mortar for a stronger edifice would have to come from the jerrybuilt Third Front, some of whose components, including the Left, abhor doing business with the BJP.
In that event, the ‘Modi-after-Advani’ script could revive the ‘secular-versus-communal’ debate, affording the Congress and its estranged allies a reason to resume relations. The new government’s complexion, its leadership, terms of outside support and constituents, would all come into play at that stage. The bargaining power in these complex negotiations will remain with the single largest party. But its advantage would only be as huge as its flexibility quotient and the tally against its name in the Lok Sabha.
That brings one to the longevity of the prime ministerial choices with which the two parties have gone to the people. An immediate casualty of the BJP flip-flop has been Advani’s ‘majboot neta’ (strong leader) plank. So glaring was the party’s dependence — and that of its prime ministerial aspirant — on Modi in Gujarat that the ad-material it released on polling date carried only the CM’s portrait.
Even the Congress-UPA circles are agog with speculation about substitutes for Manmohan Singh. Driven by the Left’s opposition to his candidature, such talk glosses over a key factor. At stake in Singh’s prime ministerial challenge is the prestige of Sonia Gandhi who publicly declared him as her party’s candidate at the release function of the Congress manifesto. Singh has since brought a lot of value to the Congress campaign focused on the UPA’s record of governance. For that reason, the mandate, regardless of its contours, would be as much for him as for the Congress. That makes his candidature non-negotiable unless he himself decides to opt out of the race.
The assumption the Congress could expend Singh to please the Left seems far-fetched. Political parties don’t change their leaders at others’ bidding. Remember the way the Congress snubbed the United Front for demanding its support minus Narasimha Rao, then under attack for his failure to protect the Babri Masjid?
In comparison, Singh bears only the cross of Left. No such taint.