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December 15, 1997


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The Untouchable

To say that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics would be repeating a cliche, and to say that Indian politics is the most cliche-ridden, would be stating the obvious. And since the outcome of the next election depends on the friends that the three entities in the fray -- the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the United Front -- are able to sign up considerably before the day of reckoning, the untouchable aura so assidously cultivated by some of the players is bound to take a beating in the days to come.

It does not need the psephologists's wisdom to state that out of the three, the BJP has a headstart, it stares one in the face. In hindsight, then, it is possible that its abortive experiment in 1996 at government formation actually proved beneficial at a time when the succeeding administration and its supporters are facing the scaffold. With the other two carrying the cross for the nation's slide towards non-governance, the BJP at least has emerged unscathed.

Yet, it will be an uphill task for it to reach the magic number needed to form a stable government. It could, on one hand, tom-tom the mess of the last one-and-a-half years, and drive home the fact that what the people need to do is to vote decisively to preclude a repetition. The pitfall to this would be that the stability factor could work in favour of the two other contenders as well, at least in theory.

With the Left promising 50 MPs, the United Front needs to bag about 225 out of the 300 that it intends to contest in its area of influence. Or the Congress's Sphinx factor could work in its favour. The lady whose smile would fox even da Vinci may just decide in favour of coming out in support the Congress, upsetting everyone's calculations.

There are imponderables and imponderables, and at a time of such uncertainty who else can you count on but friends and allies?

There is a mistaken and strong belief that the BJP is the untouchable among political parties. Insofar as the previous election brought together disparate forces to range themselves against the BJP, that view holds water but not otherwise. In my view, it is the Congress which has been reduced to this pariah status, as will be known when its hunt for electoral allies proves futile.

It is a simple fact that all the constituents of the United Front bagged their seats at the Congress's expense. It was the Congress's decline that provided them the windfall. And in areas where the Front is strong, the parties are in a tussle with the Congress, the BJP being a distant third in the fray, its presence being marginal to potential.

What will happen in the days to come is that the UF's constituents will be torn apart by the emerging conflict. Having won their votes on a strictly anti-Congress plank, how can they pussyfoot on that stance and target a virtually non-existent BJP? And as the debate sharpens inside, local units will even favour coming out of the rigid, uncomprehending parent body and perhaps ally with the BJP, with which they have no ideological differences and take on the Congress.

Unless Sonia Gandhi dons the garb of deux ex machina, the Congress is in for torrid days, with no party wanting to be seen in its company and the BJP appearing an attractive proposition for disgruntled elements within the party. While in the cowbelt it is the BJP that is ruling supreme, at least seen against the Congress, in other parts of the country the UF will neutralise it.

The only entity that may have some sympathy for the Congress's plight will be the Tamil Maanila Congress, which is understandable. But even it will be unable to do anything once the Congress, in desperation, goes along with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu.

Naturally, then, the BJP is sitting pretty, its majestic isolation about to bear fruit. Already rumblings can be heard in the Orissa unit of the Janata Dal, with the local unit preferring to side with the BJP rather than soft-target the Congress. Likewise in Karnataka, with the choice falling between erstwhile chief ministers Ramakrishna Hegde and S Bangarappa, both of whom have been rebuffed by their respective parent units. In the red citadel, too, it is not entirely inconceivable that Mamta Banerjee will tilt towards the BJP.

What the parent units in their paranoia towards the BJP are insisting is that the local units remain not just equidistant between the Congress and the BJP but if possible appear more inimical to the latter than the former. Since the reality at the grassroots is vastly different from that perceived from the top, the clash between the two viewpoints is inevitable. How can Mamta or the Congress's Bengal unit, target the BJP when it owes its existence to battling the Left Front there?

A related question to this will be the impact of aligning with splinter groups on the BJP's electoral fortunes. That, of course, is another imponderable, but what is evident is that the tie-ups, even if they do not bear fruit at the hustings in terms of numbers will help the BJP in extending its influence in areas where hitherto it has remained a bystander. And assuming that the next election will also throw up a hung Parliament -- a view to which I do not subscribe at all -- this could benefit the BJP at a later date, in subsequent elections, rather like a post-dated cheque drawn on its votebank.

Of course, all this is written at a time when the race is yet to begin. As of now the players have not even come to their marks, they are still warming up. A clearer picture of who is where, with whom, will take another month or so to emerge, when one can start placing bets.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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