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January 24, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Future Shock!

If ever there was a case of one individual making the difference between victory and defeat for another party, it is Sonia Gandhi. Even the biggest optimist for the Congress would not give her an outside chance of taking the party to power in the election. But even the biggest apologist for the saffron brigade would not deny that her campaign, in carefully chosen hamlets and cities across the landscape, has taken outright victory, a certainty a month ago, out of the Bharatiya Janata Party's grasp.

And judging by the response that Sonia's campaign has met with, it shouldn't surprise one if her exertions on behalf of the party for which her mother-in-law and husband laid down their lives, should even reduce the BJP's tally below the 200-mark, although at the moment it appears unlikely.

This is the time that the dynasty factor, which so dominated Indian politics for more than 20 years, will be put to test. The most important impact it will have on the impending election is to motivate the Congressman at the grassroots. And when you place that against the fact that the defeat of the Congress party, its retreat, originated with the disenchantment of the cadre, the Sonia effect becomes obvious. And, even the worst critic of the Congress, cannot deny that the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty matters a great deal in remote parts of India. The cocktail circuit and non-voting citizens can laugh all they want, but it is the Congress that is getting ready to laugh all the way to its votebank.

That, however, is not the issue, since it is a theory yet to be tested. The more important question is, what will the BJP do if, in the first week of March, it discovers that it is still gloriously short of the numbers, that it is still the largest party, but once again the rest of the political spectrum is closing ranks against it.

What effect will another denial of power despite its emergence as the single largest party have on the BJP?

In case it is not obvious, this is the closest that the BJP will have of coming to power in a long, long time. A month ago, I would have been willing to give the Saffron Sangh another tilt at South Block, but that was before Sonia Gandhi's emergence on the scene. While she may not hand over power to the Congress on a platter as a lot of Congressmen are hoping, if she continues at what she is doing, take party affairs in hand after the election and announce her or her family's intent to occupy the most important job in the country, there is a fair chance that the voting masses will plumb for her.

In consequence, given that the BJP is perhaps facing its last chance coming to power in New Delhi, its denial this time is likely to have disastrous consequences on the party's course.

There is a major difference between being in the Opposition and in government; one needn't go very far for living examples of this maxim, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra is good enough. The combine has proved that the way to power is not always paved with good intentions or thoughts. The fascist example, where the hatred campaign continues and even intensifies after coming to power, does not work in a democracy like India, thanks to the inbuilt checks and balances in the system. Bal Thackeray has shown what power can do to politics, which is after all just a way to reach the government.

But Thackeray is not such a great example of what even the prospect of power can do; its political ally, the BJP has shown that in the pursuit of power, politics and philosophy can take a backseat.

Today, thanks to the prospect of power staring it in the face, the BJP has not hesitated to transform itself into another Congress party, very middle of the road. Out of the window have gone the plethora of the controversial issues that pulled up the party from a meagre two seats in 1984 to the single largest party in the 11th Lok Sabha. It is a possibility that this is only a gimmick to gain acceptability, and that the issues will be revived once the party reaches a position of strength on its own, without relying on strange bedfellows across the country.

But this argument overlooks the simple fact that you can change your political stance so long as you are not in power, but when people vote you for what you represent during an election, reneging on one's stand will be quickly punished by the electorate. And if you don't believe this, just ask Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who is still clinging to the fringes of politics.

If the BJP hopes to befool the voters by selling soft ideology and reverting to its hawkishness after it comes to power, alas, it hasn't got its basics right. The electorate does not so much mind turnarounds while in the Opposition, what it cannot stomach is an about-turn while in power.

The fate that awaits it in case it is kept out of power yet again, will be a takeover by the hawks who have been lying low all along. The BJP will find itself taken over by the hardliners from the Sangh, who will then be convinced that the hard line is the only option left before the party, and to buttress their argument is L K Advani's politics of hate which resulted the party's spectacular growth. In contrast, they could argue, Vajpayee has won only political detritus, not new voters.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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