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January 25, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Till the moment of reckoning

Six months ago, most political commentators asked the same question: when would Sonia Gandhi unite with J Jayalalitha and what is left of the third force to throw the Bharatiya Janata Party government is rarely asked. In a sense, this is strange because the arithmetic of the Lok Sabha is no different -- Sonia Gandhi could easily generate the numbers if she chose to do so.

Moreover, the conventional wisdom had it that the Congress would pull the plug when a communally sensitive situation arose. For instance, both Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav tried to get Sonia to vote the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government out when the controversy over the rewriting of history was at its height. The Yadavs argued that India could not afford a BJP government; its legacy would be to destroy the communal atmosphere. Today, the communal situation is much worse than it was during the history controversy. The attacks on Christians have caused global concern and suggest that the nastier elements of the Sangh Parivar are determined to conduct pogroms against minorities.

And yet, nobody expects the Congress to vote this government out. What has made the difference? The answer, I suspect, lies in Sonia Gandhi's newfound confidence. She senses that the Congress is now on the verge of some kind of comeback and reckons that a two party system could emerge from the eventual wreckage of this Lok Sabha. To form a government with the help of assorted Yadavs and the like would be to push the clock back and to prolong an era of coalition politics when a two party system seems imminent. And naturally, the Congress would prefer the two party system.

Sonia's confidence has been bolstered by the victories in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh but her patience is a result of another medium term calculation. Several states are due to go to the polls in the next 18 months. She believes that the Congress could do well in many of these states. It is almost certain that the party will win Goa (can anybody expect the Christian minority to vote for the BJP or for a Parivar ally?) Likewise, even the BJP has written off Maharashtra where the Shiv Sena has set new records in misgovernance. If the Congress can get its act together then it should have no difficulty defeating a badly divided Janata Dal in Karnataka. Opinions are divided on Andhra Pradesh, but there is a substantial body of opinion which holds that while N Chandrababu Naidu would win a landslide victory at any Confederation of Indian Industry election he may fare less well in an assembly election. Nobody expects the Congress to do very well in Bihar, but equally everybody concedes that it cannot do any worse than it did in the last election.

If, by next summer, the Congress has won elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and possibly Andhra Pradesh, then it is suddenly going to seem like the party of the next decade. There will be other non-BJP forces in the arena, but these will seem much less significant. Mulayam Yadav will be lucky to get 20 seats in a Lok Sabha election held today, and he could get even less if the elections are held next year. Laloo Yadav has peaked, though a Muslim-Yadav coalition could continue to win him a certain critical mass of seats in Bihar. Kanshi Ram is already beginning to seem like a less substantial figure. Mamata Banerjee is on the decline. And Naveen Patnaik seems hellbent on destroying his Biju Janata Dal.

My guess is that Sonia Gandhi is more interested in bringing about such a situation than she is in taking office. She knows that any Laloo and Mulayam-ridden coalition will fail to govern effectively. If, on the other hand, she can make the Congress - on its own and without allies - the principal opposition to the BJP, then she could probably win something close to an overall majority (if not a majority itself) in an election held towards the end of next year.

The BJP has, I suspect, come to the same conclusion. Many BJP sympathisers of my acquaintance (though mostly from the L K Advani camp) have already written this government off and recognise that Sonia Gandhi will be the next prime minister of India. They are willing to bide their time and to wait for the election after the next one.

But within the Sangh Parivar, there are two factions that recognise the threat posed by the rise of the Congress, but reckon that it can be confronted. The first is the Vajpayee camp, which believes that the prime minister's own charisma -- and it is hard to dispute that he is the only statesman left in Indian politics -- can guarantee another term for the BJP if the government can also provide good governance. Hence, Vajpayee's attempts to run the sort of government that Manmohan Singh would have been proud of, and hence the many initiatives in such areas as the economy and industry.

The second Parivar faction which believes that the threat from Sonia Gandhi can be contained consists of the kind of people who Vajpayee pretends don't exist: the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, and the like. This crowd reckons that the post 1985 rise of the BJP is due to an awakening within the Hindu community. Such an awakening can only be generated by pointing to an easily identifiable villain against whom the community can unite. During the Ayodhya agitation, the Muslims played this role. Now, the Parivar has cast Christians (or more specifically, Christian missionaries) as villains.

The extremists within the Sangh Parivar believe that if they can create sufficient hysteria against Christians then two objectives are within their grasp. The first is an Ayodhya-style Hindu awakening, which will generate a political resurgence. And the second is a more personalised attack on Sonia Gandhi herself in the course of which she will be portrayed as a Bible-thumping, cross-swinging, Hindu-converting descendant of the Christians who colonised us for two centuries.

Sonia is aware of both dangers. She is reported to have warned Congressmen not to get too euphoric over the election victories. She has made the valid point that it is the BJP that has been defeated, not Vajpayee himself: the prime minister's performance was not an issue in the campaign. A charismatic prime minister could easily bounce back if his government began to deliver the goods. She is as concerned about the attempt to identify her with the Christian community. Despite demands from some of its members, the Congress has been relatively muted in its condemnation of the assaults on Christians. And when she has spoken about the subject herself, she has been shrewd enough to use the platform of the Ramakrishna Mission.

The Congress's calculation is that Vajpayee will not allow the Parivar to repeat Ayodhya. It reckons that as a responsible prime minister, he will rein in the fascists though he may toss them a crumb from time to time (such as his call for a debate on conversions). If the government does crack down on the Bajrang Dal, VHP and so on, and guarantees the safety of Christians, then the Hindu wave may never be generated. But, it says, that even if Vajpayee fails and the Parivar does run riot, the Hindu community will not be sympathetic to the campaign against Christians as it was to the Ayodhya agitation. Partly this is because Christians do not generate the same strong sentiments as Muslims. And partly, it is because Hindus have wearied of communal agitations after Ayodhya.

The real threat to the Congress's prospects, therefore, comes from an effective government that successfully utilises Vajpayee's charisma. That is why there were broad smiles at the All India Congress Committee headquarters when the prime minister was forced to postpone his reshuffle after problems with his allies. As long as Vajpayee seems beleaguered and shackled, the Congress has nothing to worry about.

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