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The ruling party syndrome
January 20, 2004
As winter stealthily turns to spring, the mind of India seems to be focused on two pet obsessions: cricket and politics. What binds them is not merely the appetite for victory and defeat but an underlying lack of predictability. Cricket, we have all come to know, is the game of glorious uncertainties. So for that matter are elections. Like cricket, there may be favourites and underdogs but no election is over till the tabulations from the electronic voting machines are completed. And, as the purveyors of conventional wisdom discovered last month, particularly after the votes were counted in Rajasthan, the distance between opinion poll forecasts and the actual outcome is sometimes considerable.
Since the famous saffron victories in three states forced the feel good factor to come alive in the media, the BJP has been overwhelmed by triumphalism. Whereas three months ago party strategists were thinking of the general election as an uphill battle, the mood is now of an outcome foretold. The body language of party functionaries oozes over-confidence and within the charmed circle the talk is already about Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee matching the electoral record of Jawaharlal Nehru.
If the 14th general election is actually combined into a referendum on the five years of Vajpayee and a Presidential contest, there is little doubt that the NDA has the decisive upper hand. Since parliamentary contests are relatively detached from local issues, the BJP calculation that people will vote for or against Vajpayee may not be entirely unfounded. Yet, whether people actually do so or take solace in traditional allegiances, candidates or sectarian preferences is going to be decided by the campaign. That is when the undercurrents crystallise into a mood or, occasionally, even a wave. In short, the Vajpayee-isation of the Lok Sabha election is not something pre-sold. The voters have to be convinced that Vajpayee and, by implication, his vision, are the only issues.
In terms of political positioning, the BJP knows its mind better than its opponents know theirs. But before the strategy can come into full play there are many loose ends that have to be tied up. First, there is the unfinished task of cobbling together alliances, particularly in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, and resolving the intra-NDA tension in Haryana.. Second, there is a structure of election management and a chain of command that have to be put in place. Finally, there is the complex task of putting meat into the campaign, an exercise that involves strategy, propaganda and spin.
My own impression is that the BJP has not yet addressed any of the three with the seriousness that befits a general election. The party's morale may be high but in terms of hard-nosed preparations it has been overtaken by the Congress. Like the Congress of the past, the BJP, it would seem, is getting caught up in the ruling party syndrome. Consequently, it is devoting a disproportionate amount of energy in doling out sops to every conceivable section in the spurious belief that these last-minute initiatives influence voting behaviour. What, for example, explains the 'package' for tribals or the announcement of another Pay Commission for government employees? Will he effect of these initiatives be felt before voting day? If last-minute handouts made such a decisive difference, no incumbent government would ever have lost an election.
Entering the battle as an underdog, the Congress seems to be more focused, not least because it is more desperate. Sonia Gandhi's phone calls to every potentially disgruntled bit player may be the object of mirth but it has a purpose. Aware that the chemistry of the campaign is against her, Sonia is concentrating on firming up the arithmetic, something the BJP did so well in 1998 and 1999. The thrust of the Congress campaign is not aimed at ensuring victory but denying the NDA a majority.
Just compare the purposefulness of Sonia's alliance-building with the casualness of the BJP's moves in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The Congress as set up its campaign committees and have daily brainstorming sessions. As of the beginning of the week, the BJP has not even begun the exercise. The negotiations with Kalyan Singh have, for example, been allowed to linger to such an extent that the full impact of the former chief minister's homecoming will not be very pronounced. Indeed, some BJP leaders are conveying the distinct impression that the party's main purpose is to cobble together a majority through unprincipled post-poll alliances. What else explains the completely unnecessary attempt to get Sharad Pawar's NCP to join the NDA in Maharashtra?
The first task before a political party is to enthuse its own supporters. In early-December, the Congress was demoralised, dejected and mentally prepared to sit another five years in opposition. Today there is growing confidence in the opposition that it can give the NDA a run for its money. Unchecked, the mood will transform into a belief that the NDA can actually be defeated. The BJP would do well to remember that it has to, in any case, also confront a last-minute campaign by the media against the NDA. This was the experience of 1998 and 1999, and 2004 will be no different.
Politicians love cricketing analogies and there are too many of them in circulation. However, there is one that an over-confident and over-complacent BJP should ponder over: to get a batsman out, you must also think him out.