India is that rare democracy which is in a perennial election mode. Between general elections, three or four states go to the polls each year. The victory of the Mahagathbandhan (MGB) in Bihar is colouring the hopes and strategies in this year’s elections. The Congress has decided that, as in Bihar, it is happy to play second or third fiddle to whichever party offers hope of stopping the BJP.
Thus, at the very least, the UPA is dead and the MGB has taken its place. Sonia Gandhi contributed to the survival and growth of the Congress by admitting that the Congress could not win on its own. Rajiv Gandhi refused to form a government in 1989 as he did not have absolute majority. Ten years later, Sonia Gandhi abandoned that and the UPA was the result. Now, after the severe defeat in 2014, she has obviously decreed that the Congress is no longer a leading national party. It is a part of whichever MGB is feasible.
What we are witnessing is a reassertion of a fundamental factor in India’s democracy. India has never been a two-party democracy. There has been a single dominant party and then many minor parties, a few with national aspirations but most just regional. There was a hiatus between 1989 and 2014 when no party had a majority. Now there is another party which has a majority. If the Old National Party has given up the struggle to come back with a majority, then the only issue is whether the BJP is the New National Party.
This question will define electoral politics between now and 2019. The Bihar election is the template but the result there is not repeatable necessarily. Between 1967 and 1989, many attempts were made to build an anti-Congress coalition, but none succeeded except the post-Emergency Janata experiment, albeit only briefly. Is it likely that 2014 represents a deep shift, a handing over of the baton from the Congress to the BJP?
It is, of course, too early to tell. Whether it happens or not crucially depends on how serious the BJP is to become the New National Party. Narendra Modi understands what it takes to occupy the national stage. Despite his previous brand image, he adopted a centrist strategy in 2014 with sabka saath sabka vikas. He has broadly stuck to an inclusive centrist stance. It is his party which has not quite caught up with its leader. There are elements within which behave as if they have a suicide wish. They show no interest in occupying the centre space. They behave as if they have already become the sole party in power now and forever.
This sort of behaviour is not unusual in an ideological party. The Labour Party took 45 years before winning a majority. At the first session of the 1945 Parliament, Labour MPs broke tradition by singing the Red Flag. It took another 50 years before it won two and later three elections with full majority. It has lost twice since and looks like crippling itself yet again.
This could happen to the BJP. It lost in 2004 due to complacency. It could mess up again in 2019. Yet one cannot rule out that wiser heads may prevail and the BJP could become the New National Party for the next 50 years.