So disastrous has been the recent performance of the United Progressive Alliance that some political observers have begun to write off the coalition altogether, in particular the Congress which leads it. Scandals continue to pour out of the government week after week -- the latest being the insidious privatisation of Indian Railways services and properties, the underselling of coal blocks, and the Army chief's charge that he was offered a Rs 14-crore bribe to approve substandard transport vehicles, with the implication that the defence ministry did nothing about it.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is floundering as his government courts increasing unpopularity because of its disastrous economic policies and callousness towards the aam aadmi, in whose name it won the 2009 Lok Sabha election.
Put frankly, Dr Singh has become a liability for the UPA. He is only interested in his pet projects like nuclear power plants and public sector divestment. His single-minded obsession has been to kill the food security Bill and refuse minimum wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the UPA's biggest achievement. The NREGA's allocation was cut, instead of being raised, in the latest budget.
Even more significant is the Congress's poor showing in the recent state assembly elections and numerous byelections since then. In Uttar Pradesh, the party failed to improve its seat tally beyond six over its 2007 score of 22 in the 403-strong assembly despite highly favourable circumstances, including anti-incumbency against Mayawati and energetic campaigning by the Gandhi family.
This showed the hollowness of the claim that Rahul Gandhi represents the Congress's 'trump card'. The party has no core-base nor strategy in India's most important state. And Gandhi lacks the vote-pulling power or charisma that was attributed to him despite his poor performance in last year's Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Kerala assembly elections. Most of the candidates he handpicked in the South lost, and Bihar was a sad story for the Congress.
In the just-completed byelections, the Congress lost in all seven assemblies in Andhra Pradesh, and failed in Tamil Nadu and Odisha, although it won a Lok Sabha seat in Karnataka and an assembly constituency in Gujarat. The strong pro-Telangana sentiment in that region ensured the Congress's defeat because it dithers on statehood. Andhra is vitally important for the Congress. It won 33 of the 42 seats there, its highest number of MPs from any state.
The Congress, with its political strategy in tatters, its organisation demoralised, and its leadership in retreat, has resumed its decline, akin to the quarter-century-long phase after 1987. Sonia Gandhi is behaving as if she had abdicated responsibility. Unless she resumes charge, and takes drastic measures to rejuvenate the party and restore its relevance to the people, it will go into the 2014 elections with greatly eroded appeal -- but with a great anti-incumbency burden.
However, the Congress's plight, self-inflicted and terrible as it, should give very little consolation to the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is itself in bad shape. The BJP performed poorly in all the asssembly elections barring Goa. It UP, it performed the worst of all major parties, losing two percentage-points in votes and four seats over 2007. In Punjab, its tally fell from 19 seats to 12.
In the latest Lok Sabha byelections, the BJP suffered a rout in Udupi-Chikmagalur, which was considered a Sangh bastion because of its communal mobilisation around the Baba Budangiri shrine and the presence of eight strong Hindu maths. The BJP controlled seven of the eight assembly segments in the constituency, which was vacated by the present Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda. Yet it lost by a margin of over 45,00 votes to the Congress.
No less significant was the BJP's defeat in Gujarat's Mansa assembly constituency, where its vote-share fell by nine percentage-points. This speaks to the popularity of Narendra Modi, its 'star' performer whom Big Business is now wooing as never before. But Modi's Gujarat has indifferent health and education indicators, with low rates of girl-child schooling., and growing farmer suicides
Beginning 1982, the BJP made major inroads in Karnataka, which was declared its 'gateway' to the southern states. It performed especially well in 2009, winning 19 of Karnataka 28 Lok Sabha seats, because it managed to expand its base outside the Lingayat community, its old bastion concentrated in the Northern districts, which forms 18 percent of the state's population. It also used crassly communal means of mobilisation, especially in the southern coastal districts.
However, with his sectarian caste-based politics, disgraced Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa has reduced the BJP to a Lingayat party, which has alienated other castes like the Vokkaligas, Dalits and OBCs. Monumental corruption, and his collusion with the Bellary Brothers' illegal iron-ore mining syndicate, documented by the state Lokayukta's report, is only exceeded by his family's greed for illegal gratification, it is alleged.
The Karnataka high court recently granted Yeddyurappa some relief on procedural grounds. He has used that to try to blackmail the party's central leadership into reinstating him as CM, using such despicable methods as spiriting away his supporters to a luxury resort, and parading them before party national president Nitin Gadkari.
This has made a mockery of all political decency, and repulsed many of the BJP's middle class voters. It will surely cost the BJP dearly by closing the southern 'gateway'. The party has no base worth the name in any other southern state. And it may now be in terminal decline in Karnataka.
Regional satraps and chief ministers call the shots in today's BJP, and the central leadership is in utter disarray. Much of the blame for this lies with Gadkari, easily the least respected of all its national presidents, not excluding Rajnath Singh. Gadkari, who has never shed his provincial Vidarbha-Maharashtra outlook and preoccupation, was nominated to the party's top position by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as a reward for his loyalty.
UP was a big test for him. His electoral strategy there was based on entrusting the party's choice of candidates and micromanagement of the campaign to RSS pracharak Suresh Joshi and other obscure advisers, while inducting the rural health scam-tainted minister Babu Singh Kushwaha, recently sacked by Mayawati. Joshi's appointment antagonised Modi, his old adversary, who refused to campaign in the state elections. Eventually, Gadkari came a cropper.
He then messed with the party's Rajya Sabha tickets, handing one to Nagpur-based businessman Ajay Sancheti and another (in Jharkhand) to London-based NRI Anshuman Mishra. The second move provoked a furore, inviting a vitriolic attack from Yashwant Sinha. Gadkari had to beat a retreat and lose face.
Gadkari is despised by the party's 'second generation' leaders such as Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, besides Modi. But they in turn, especially the Delhi-based duo, both close to LK Advani, have no love lost for each other. The central leadership is divided as well as rudderless.
Advani himself hasn't tempered his ambition for power despite his age and had to be forced out as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha by the RSS. He has the image of a patriarch who never made it to the prime minister's position which he so desperately craves. But he cannot play the role of the final arbiter in the BJP leadership crisis. That crisis remains unresolved.
The BJP is unable to "moderate" itself by cutting its umbilical cord with the RSS. It remains wedded to rank communalism and the Hindutva ideology. Nor can it forge a strategy to overcome its recent setbacks and expand its social base and electoral support. It hopes that a combination of popular disenchantment with the UPA, and pure luck, might help it win more than its present strength of 116 Lok Sabha seats.
However, relying on flukes is not strategy. The BJP's fallback option is to woo regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK, Janata Dal-United and Biju Janata Dal to revive and expand the National Democratic Alliance. After all, they have all broken bread with the BJP in the past to keep the Congress out of power. But their support cannot be taken for granted. It depends on the 'M' (Modi) factor.
The RSS has systematically tightened its hold on the BJP party machine and appointed its loyalists as state organisational secretaries. It has however failed to rein in leaders like Modi. If Modi wins the Gujarat assembly elections due later this year, he will want to become the party president and project himself as the NDA's prime ministerial candidate.His bid could become viable in the unlikely event of the BJP winning 150-170 seats. That will confront the regional parties with a wrenchingly cruel choice. Will they legitimise a leader whose name is synonymous with State-sponsored mass murder? That would be shameful, but it can't be ruled out. Regrettably, Indian democracy's fate could depend on that hideous, if unlikely, outcome.