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Loss in Maharashtra will erode BJP revival
October 11, 2004
As campaigning for the Maharashtra assembly election nears its end, opinion polls put the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Democratic Front slightly ahead of the Shiv Sena-BJP. While an Indian Express-NDTV poll gives the DF 132 seats (of a total of 288) in a hung House and the Sena-BJP 111, a Telegraph-STAR poll gives the DF a slender majority (148) and its rival 128 seats. But an Aaj Tak-ORG-Marg survey forecasts a convincing majority (165 to 175) for the Congress-NCP and only 95-105 seats for the Sena-BJP.
In Maharashtra, pollsters could prove even more unreliable than elsewhere. There are any number of rebel candidates fighting the official nominees of the major parties; the contest is unevenly divided across regions, in which Vidarbha's 66 constituencies could play an important 'swing' role; and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party has emerged a significant player even as the Republican Party factions traditionally supported by the Dalits face serious fragmentation and marginalisation. The greatest uncertainty arises from the internal revolts brewing in all the four big parties.
Perhaps the greatest churning is taking place inside the Congress, which split five years ago, leading to the NCP's creation. The Congress/NCP both remain plagued by multiple crises. Scores of former Congress/NCP candidates who stood second in the 1999 assembly election now aspire to a ticket. (Some probably will win the election.) Some 110 Congress rebels and 60 NCP rebels are reportedly contesting against their parties' official candidates. Bandkhors (rebels) are spoiling the party for the NCP, and to an extent, the BJP too.
However, the greatest -- and newest -- loser from the ubiquitous phenomenon of 'rebellion' in Maharashtra will be the Shiv Sena. This is because in the Sena's leadership succession battle, Bal Thackeray has sided with his son Uddhav against his nephew Raj, who is far and away the more capable and better-known organiser. The Raj Thackeray faction will work against official candidates and damage their chances. Uddhav's elevation has also put off Messrs Narayan Rane and Manohar Joshi, both former chief ministers, who (especially, Rane) can claim a political base.
Rane feels especially cheated because his government was prematurely dissolved in 1999 as a result of the BJP's insistence on an early assembly election. In the past, the Sena supremo would resolve internal differences through his network of patronage. But big cracks are now visible in that network because of his son's new role as working president.
Another new factor will shape the Maharashtra electoral contest. That is Big Money. Following the Election Commission's orders, about 200 candidates have declared assets worth Rs 1 crore to Rs 100 crores! Of these, as many as 54 candidates are not even registered as income-tax payees. In addition, there are hundreds of candidates (of a total of 2,678) who are no longer bound to any party leaders through campaign finance arrangements. They act more as individual political entrepreneurs. This too complicates matters.
The issue of separate statehood for Vidarbha (which was earlier part of the Central Provinces and Berar) will influence the elections. The statehood demand is growing. Vidarbha admittedly has a 'development backlog' thanks to the non-fulfilment of promises made at the time of its merger into Maharashtra. The Congress is divided over the demand. The BJP is inclined to support it, but its ally (the Sena) vehemently opposes it. The BSP alone strongly advocates separate statehood. This could help it win many votes in the region where 20 percent of the population is Dalit (or Adivasi) and another 40 percent is OBC.
In the last Lok Sabha election, the fast-expanding BSP caused a loss of nine seats to the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra. This time around, it could affect about 50 assembly seats. Large sections of Dalit youth are disillusioned with the constantly warring RPI factions organised around individuals like Messrs Ramdas Athavale, Prakash Ambedkar, R S Gavai and Jogendra Kavade, which ally with this or that party as a subordinate force. Many youth are attracted to Mayawati's strategy of an independent, exclusive Dalit party, which seeks to tilt the balance of power.
Amidst this political mosaic, the Congress-NCP is working up a high-energy campaign, in which it has a distinct advantage over its rival. Atal BIhari Vajpayee and Bal Thackeray were too ill to campaign for the BJP-Sena except in the very last phase. Advani is no substitute for them. Nor are BJP top state leaders Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde. By contrast, Sonia Gandhi has been attracting huge crowds. Along with Sharad Pawar, her canvassing will certainly make a difference to the election.
The real question is, will vigorous campaigning help overcome the DF's anti-incumbency burden? This burden is real. The Front has failed to provide even remotely decent governance and has changed chief ministers midstream. Sushilkumar Shinde, no resolute leader himself, hasn't improved matters much.
The Congress-NCP could, in a worst-case scenario, lose the Maharashtra election -- although the Sena-BJP is unlikely to get a thumping majority. (It might form a shaky government by allying with the unreliable BSP and independents, etc.) A defeat in Maharashtra will represent a significant setback for the Congress and the UPA in general. But it's unlikely to be a grave, leave alone fatal, setback. Soon after Maharashtra, assembly elections are due in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana, which the BJP and its allies are likely to lose. This will have a more decisive influence on the national trend.
The NDA faces a likely rout in Bihar, where the Janata Dal (United), which once had 30-odd MPs, is fragmented and badly depleted. The JD(U) performed disastrously in the last Lok Sabha election. All its Central ministers lost, barring George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar (who scraped through). The JD(U)-BJP are no match for the RJD-Congress.
In contrast to the Congress, a defeat in Maharashtra will mean a heavy loss for the BJP-NDA. A power struggle has already broken out in the BJP, driven by competition for succession to the first-rung leadership. As Advani recently indicated in a BBC interview, neither he nor Vajpayee will probably head any future BJP government at the Centre -- assuming it forms one. This has spurred the 'second-generation' aspirants -- all of them ambitious men and women -- to stake out their territories and position themselves for a fierce battle with one another. They include Messrs M Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitly, Rajnath Singh, Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj. None of them has a well-defined independent social base or constituency.
Their factional alignments with one another became apparent during Bharti's Tiranga Yatra, following her arrest in the Hubli Idgah maidan case. The party president seized the opportunity provided by a court warrant to get rid of Bharti from the Madhya Pradesh chief ministership and did his utmost to marginalise her yatra, in which no major BJP leader participated right till the end (when an embarrassed Vajpayee was called in).
Mahajan, for his own reasons, despises Bharti. He has assigned her only five campaigning days in Maharashtra, with 15 meetings, while Swaraj has been allotted seven days and 28 meetings. Advani will address 12 rallies and Naidu 15. Mahajan's rival, Jaitley, will only get to address five meetings. But Mahajan will speak in 71 places, and his brother-in-law Munde in 60! This means the power struggle will sharpen no matter how the BJP performs at the hustings. If it does well, Naidu, Jaitley and Bharti will sulk. If it does poorly, Mahajan will be blamed and isolated.
Today, no top BJP leader can moderate and resolve such internal power rivalries. Vajpayee seems to have lost both the acumen and the political prestige needed to do so. Advani seems to be in a state of disbelief and denial about the Lok Sabha results. The RSS has stepped into this vacuum with its pet theory -- which not many BJP leaders can convincingly refute -- namely, that the electoral rout of April/May was caused by the party's deviation from Hindutva.
Besides its own leaders, the RSS-VHP too are pushing the BJP towards a harder line -- a reborn Jana Sangh obsessed with raucous, sectarian Hindu communalism, and narrowly upper caste-based, which doesn't even try to build a broad social base involving groups like the OBCs and Dalits.
The BJP's Jana Sanghisation is a recipe for its contraction into a parochial, special interest party, or a pressure group. This contraction is likely to get greatly accelerated before the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states, and then in the Lok Sabha poll. The BJP has lost much of its ground support in UP and Bihar, and suffered massive electoral erosion in 25 out of India's 28 states. A defeat in Maharashtra, India's second largest state, will prove especially costly. It will greatly erode the chances of the BJP's revival even in a future period of Congress decline. In Maharashtra, the stakes are much higher for the BJP than the Congress. And the dice are loaded against it.