BJP’s success shows that there is no alternative to Congress-style politics. Or that it is yet to emerge.
Must the BJP take the Congress route to electoral success? Must the Congress depend on a straight fight with the BJP for political survival? Does the rise of the BJP in Haryana and Maharashtra fill a political vacuum or deepen it? These are some of the questions that we must ask once the din over the electoral verdict in both states is over.
First of all, let us acknowledge the significance of this verdict. It is true that the BJP has secured just about one-third of the votes in Haryana, a drop of about 8 points over the NDA’s vote share in the Lok Sabha elections. In Maharashtra, the BJP fell far short of the party’s expectations of a clear majority and has secured less than 28 per cent of the votes. These figures may help bust the hype that accompanies political rhetoric on television bytes.
Yet, there is a political reality bigger than these figures. The BJP’s rise in Haryana, from being an also-ran “GT Road party” to a state-wide party with a clear majority in the assembly, is a phenomenal, even historic, success.
In Maharashtra, too, the BJP has catapulted itself to Number One, with a three-digit tally, something no party has achieved in the last two decades. That it did so by taking political risk and breaking from its longstanding allies is no mean achievement.
This verdict has concluded the process of the shift in the balance of power that began a few months before the Lok Sabha elections. First, there is consolidation of the power of the ruling coalition vis à vis its national competitors. This normally happens in the run-up to, and following, a major electoral verdict, as in the Lok Sabha elections this year. The verdict confirms that the process is ongoing, despite the serious setbacks received by the ruling coalition in the series of bypolls held across the country.
Second, within the coalition, the BJP has gained an upper hand. Its erstwhile ally, the Haryana Janhit Congress, has been routed. The Shiv Sena has survived this fate and is well placed to strike a hard bargain for government formation. But the balance of power has shifted — the BJP has about twice as many seats as the Shiv Sena. The BJP’s allies would think twice before taking it on in elections, in Parliament or in government. Finally, within the BJP, the balance has tilted fully in favour of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo.
This clearly offers the government greater room for policy and political manoeuvring. We do not know if the government would use it to take some long-term and hard decisions, or to push some policies that favour its friends and cronies. Politically, we do not know if the BJP would now pick up the courage to hold elections in Delhi or to smuggle in a BJP-led government through the backdoor.
As for the Congress, the respite offered by the recent bypolls has proved temporary as the party stares at a grim future. The verdict accentuates a paradox regarding the role of the Gandhi family within the Congress: each such verdict underlines a leadership vacuum at the very top of the party, while eliminating leaders who could fill it or be challengers. This combination of necessity and impossibility of change could be fatal for the Congress.
In the medium and long run, the significance of the verdict lies not so much in this shifting balance of power, but in the more enduring electoral realignment that it signals. In both the states, this has been a “realigning election” which could alter the long-established relationship of parties with the voters. While the BJP is now here to stay in Haryana, it is not clear if the INLD and the Congress can continue to hold on for very long. With Om Prakash Chautala and his political heir behind bars, the family-controlled INLD is now
at the mercy of the Central government. Losing its social base, the Congress may find it hard to sustain itself in the opposition. In Maharashtra, while the Shiv Sena has extended its lease, either the Congress or the NCP may become politically unviable in the medium run.
It could well be the Congress, for it faces a crisis of viability, and not just in these two states. Recent electoral history suggests that wherever the Congress has fallen below 20 per cent vote share, it has not recovered. In state after state — Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh — it has stayed below the threshold of viability. Maharashtra and Haryana could join this list, though the Congress is a shade above 20 per cent in Haryana. There are several states
like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where the Congress has been reduced to a permanent opposition. It continues to exist in those states and in others like Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, thanks to a bipolar contest with the BJP. This verdict could deepen the vacuum in opposition. Any attempt to counter this with an anti-BJP coalition, as in Bihar, would strengthen the BJP in the long run.
More than a vacuum in opposition, we are staring at a political vacuum. The BJP’s spectacular success barely conceals its costs. The more the BJP succeeds, the more it becomes like the Congress. The BJP’s Congressisation was most apparent in Haryana. The party resorted to wholesale import of Congress leaders. It unabashedly used the old Congress games of caste- and community-based vote banks. It maintained careful ambiguity about its choice of chief minister. It steered clear of saying anything substantive in its manifesto. The BJP’s Modi cult would put the Congress’s Gandhi cult to shame. It outpaced the Congress in the use of white and black money during the election campaign. Reportedly, it overpowered the INLD and the Congress in the use of muscle power on polling day. The situation in Maharashtra was no different. You wonder if there is any other route to electoral success.
Earlier, they used the TINA (there is no alternative) factor to explain the success of Congress, the party. The new TINA stands for Congress, the phenomenon. This political vacuum creates a potential for disillusionment with democracy. It also opens a space for alternative politics.
The writer, chief spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party, is currently on leave from CSDS