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How the presidential poll could shape BJP's future

June 11, 2012 08:52 IST

By endorsing the Sangma candidacy the BJP could take the first steps towards a new federalist coalition that shares something more than a common enemy, says Shashi Shekhar.

Even as a debate rages within the Bharatiya Janata Party on its present, past and future leadership and on the question of veterans past their prime making a gracious exit, there is another political construct within the BJP's sphere of influence that also perhaps is past its moral purpose.

Since the 2004 defeat and the subsequent shrinking of the National Democratic Alliance -- over the years, a hard question that has not been posed is, 'what exactly does the NDA stand for' beyond the negativity of anti-Congressism.

But for its all-weather allies in Maharashtra and Punjab, the BJP's coalitions in the other states have shown inherent contradictions and tensions on and off. While the realpolitik of anti-Congressism and the calculus of vote banks brought them together, it is clear that there isn't much beyond that to keep them going in the future.

The same may perhaps be said of the Congress and its alliances with rank opportunism binding together some while others cling on to the drifting UPA for sheer survival under the threat of centrally engineered investigations.

Neither formulation makes for a stable pre- or post-poll coalition but then the reluctance to be seen as the party that brought down an elected government gives some leverage to the principal pole within the coalition to survive an entire term.

But why must we set the bar on expectations so low to settle for a barely surviving coalition that totters from crisis to crisis?

The Congress and its current partners will continue to be bound to each other for some time given their collective culpability for all of the UPA's sins of omission and commission. But nothing stops the BJP from attempting to fundamentally remake the NDA from its current negative avatar rooted in anti-Congressism to a positive avatar that is built on a set of shared values and principles giving it coherence.

It would of course be naïve to expect such a positive avatar to be divorced from the realities of electoral politics. The most enduring of coalitions at the state level have been those where the partners complement each other in terms of the demographic constituencies they represent, thus making it a win-win for either. 

Any new avatar for the NDA founded on shared values and principles will also have to discover shared interests rooted in mutually exclusive but complementary constituencies.

It is reasonable to ask if such a remake is possible in a pre-poll scenario, given the natural anxieties of regional parties over losing leverage and possibly even public perception within their constituents. But then we are in unusual political times when for the first time we have a presidential candidate floated by parties not belonging to either of the principal coalitions.

While PA Sangma enjoys a certain brand equity and goodwill across political parties given his national profile as a former speaker of the Lok Sabha, it would be a stretch to imagine that his candidacy was thought to be viable based solely on that equity and goodwill. There clearly was a realistic assessment of hard support that would eventually come Sangma's way for the leaders of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Biju Janata Dal to float his candidacy.

It was thus curious that the recently concluded national executive of the BJP was silent on the issue of the presidential election. At the time of the writing of this column it is unclear which way exactly the BJP was planning to lean on the issue of endorsing a candidate for President.

Nevertheless, there is merit in the BJP looking beyond past precedents on the question of whether regional parties should rally behind a national party candidate or vice-versa, to view the Sangma presidency as an opportunity to forge a new federalist coalition.

There is nothing much to be gained by the BJP in floating a candidate of its choice from within its fold who is doomed to lose in a manner no different from the late BS Shekhawat. In fact the Shekhawat candidacy was a lost opportunity. It did not help the BJP expand the NDA's footprint; it did not help create any goodwill with new regional partners.

It in fact was a pointless political exercise doomed to fail, resulting in the BJP frittering away the moral high ground it had managed to wrest on the issue of the suitability of the present occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan to hold the highest office in the nation.

There is still the outside chance of the BJP being able to zero in on an apolitical candidate with crossover appeal. But the window of opportunity to float such a candidacy has perhaps closed with key regional parties who are also potential future partners of the BJP already committed publicly to the Sangma candidacy.

By endorsing the Sangma candidacy the BJP could take the first steps towards a new federalist coalition that shares something more than a common enemy. There has already been much informal coordination across chief ministers on several issues in the interest of federalism and states' rights. The Sangma candidacy is an opportunity to not just formalise that coordination but put it to the realpolitik test.

The presidential election by itself will not reveal if there are mutually exclusive but complementary constituencies here that can hold together in a general election. But it could be an early indicator based on the attitude of incumbent MLAs and MPs towards such a federalist coalition. We are already hearing rumblings within the BJD in Orissa. Perhaps we will hear more as the by-elections conclude in Andhra Pradesh.

Whether PA Sangma is able to win the presidential election ultimately is secondary. But his candidacy could be a vehicle for the BJP to proactively shape its future coalition under the relatively low pressure conditions of a pre-poll scenario rather than under the weight of a high political stakes post-poll scenario that may already have been further burdened by the weight of high public expectations. It may also be a vehicle for Narendra Modi to prove a point on the 'acceptability' debate.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at

Shashi Shekhar