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That heady feeling

Since 1998 BJP has emerged as more respectful of the political system.
PTI | By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
UPDATED ON APR 21, 2004 12:56 PM IST

Like most colonised countries, India received the legacy of a political system that had single-party domination as its hallmark. By just repositioning itself marginally, the Congress emerged as the natural party of governance after decades as the torchbearer of the national movement.

For close to 50 years, there was no answer to the electoral and ideological domination of the party. Prior to 1996, the only three occasions when the hegemony of the party was challenged — unsuccessfully in 1967, successfully in 1977 and 1989 — the threat came mainly from a motley group of anti-Congress parties who joined hands with former Congress leaders who rebelled in an attempt to carve a bigger role for themselves. All those years, anti-Congressism remained the driving spirit of opposition politics thereby underlining the fact that the Congress dominated the political system.

Before 1996, India’s flirtations with coalitions in government were either a reflection of scepticism regarding Indira Gandhi’s leadership in 1967, or the electorate’s attempt to chastise the Congress leadership and force it to become more respectful of the norms of democracy. As a result, these were just transitory political orders and it was never in doubt that the baton would be handed back to the Congress within a short span of time. But things changed after 1996. Since then, no single party has had a hold over the political agenda of the country the way the Congress used to have.

The two most epochal developments since 1998 have been Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s continuation as the head of a changing coalition and the repositioning of the BJP as a party more respectful of the Indian political system. The arithmetic of both the 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas, and the responsibility of leading a political amalgam, forced the BJP to accommodate views of even the smaller partners in the government. This was the catalyst in the party’s realisation that if it wanted to remain a party of governance, there was a need to check its desire to change the system. The answer lay in making changes within.

But if forecasts that Verdict 2004 will lead to the return of the NDA with an increased number of seats for the BJP and a reduced bench strength of the allies turn out to be true, then it will possibly signal the return of single-party dominance. But this time, it won’t be the Congress that will be dominating the political arena, but the BJP.

After having set the tone and tenor of the political discourse in the late Eighties-early Nineties as a Right-wing rabble-rousing opposition party, the BJP has nicely fallen into the groove of a centrist party that is more intent on governing the system than on rocking it. But if the polls yield the result predicted by most, it would lead to an increased belligerence within the party and result in the BJP demanding far greater leverage in policy formulation. The BJP would want many of its positions that have so far been put on the backburner to be given greater prominence in government policy.

In fact, the undercurrent in the BJP’s decision to tone down some of its previous positions on contentious issues in its Vision Document and the NDA agreeing to meet the BJP halfway on some of them is the simultaneous realisation of the two that there is need to build up a common cause. The BJP has come to the understanding that as the principal party of governance, it can’t remain isolated on the fringes of the political canvas. On their part, the NDA allies have come to terms with the fact that the time has now come when they need the BJP more than the other way round. (After all, the BJP has merrily gone about changing partners without destabilising the coalition.)

The BJP is in an advantageous position vis-à-vis its allies because a large number of them are either dependent on simply opposing the Congress or have another regional party as their principal political foe. The BJP has also been extremely canny in regard to allies — not threatening alliances even when it meant conceding more than what its cadre wished for. Moreover, holding power in states at the moment is not too important for the BJP and it cites — to the rank and file — the situation in Karnataka where the virtues of patience have enabled it to emerge as the dominant partner of the anti-Congress front.

The allies are now willing to accept the policies of the BJP as a price for sharing power at the Centre. This is a reversal of the previous situation where agreeing with the BJP on policy issues was seen to be flirting with political untouchability.

Smaller NDA partners, however, would claim that their acceptance of the Ayodhya issue is based on the change that’s discernible within the BJP and that after abandoning the ‘temple-or-nothing’ approach, there was nothing objectionable in the BJP’s position. But such an argument does not carry much weight as realpolitik offers a different analysis. To retain their political relevance and electoral bases, NDA partners need to align with a major national party, and at the moment there is none on the political firmament besides the BJP.

Out of the 350-odd seats that the BJP is contesting this time, it is the junior partner in states that account for just about half of them. In other states, the BJP is either the senior partner or is contesting the polls on its own. Though the seat-sharing formula has not been altered much as compared to the past two elections, the change in the BJP’s position vis-à-vis the allies has been more in terms of moral authority. While the NDA was more amorphous in 1999, this time there’s no doubt who’s Big Brother.

Just as last year’s assembly election results in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh proved conclusively that the BJP was in command, the 2004 campaign has demonstrated that the BJP has far greater ‘determining capacity’ than in previous elections. A reduced bench strength of the allies in the 14th Lok Sabha will only suit the BJP as it would enable the party to rein in their ambitions and allow greater elbow-room for the leader of the coalition.

Does this mean that the BJP is on the verge of reversing its moderation and mark a return to the uncompromising approach of the late Eighties-early Nineties? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because the BJP will be less moderate if the verdict rolls out on predicted lines because the rank and file of will naturally demand the returns of dominance. No, because the BJP will not risk frittering away the rewards of playing by the rules of the Indian political system. Moreover, the party is still some way off from the kind of dominance the Congress had in the pre-1996 era. An overenthusiastic domination by the BJP would hinder further growth.

In all probability, the verdict would then result in Round II of the BJP performing a balancing act between moderation and belligerence in relation to its coalition partners. It is unclear, though, whether this would be done with the finesse of a trapeze artist, the diplomacy of a wordsmith or the crudeness of a neighbourhood thug.

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