Are both the BJP and Congress reading the tea leaves wrong for the battle of 2019? In their visceral hatred for one another, they continue to obsess about each other and perhaps this will allow both to be blindsided by the ragtag bobtail army of federal chieftains who are waiting to bushwhack them. Lying as they are in wait to ambuscade them, driven into the ground due the BJP’s heft of majoritarianism over the last four years. Attempts at acute polarisation in Bengal, use of investigative agencies in Bihar, Muslim bashing in UP, shoot and scoot politics in Odisha to break Naveen Patnaik’s party, muscle flexing against Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Telengana, going back on funding commitments for Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh; there are myriad reasons for malcontent against the ruling dispensation in the federated state of India. While one rails about the dynasty, the other rants about the fascist agenda of the RSS and BJP, neither speaks about development or about lifting the masses of people out of poverty with intent and initiatives. Blinded by rage, the top deck leadership of both parties indulges in cheap name calling.
The ingrained loathing and personal animosity that the Congress first family shares for the PM and vice versa has been a running saga over these last four years. It has turned into an single minded obsession on both sides as they attack each other relentlessly displaying an aversion and hostility seldom seen in politics. Norman Mailer would have summed up the situation like this — obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession, you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer. So true, because you end up expending energy in trying to convince the electorate that the other is ‘injurious for health.’ In the process what we have seen is that the BJP has ended up cloning the Congress social welfare economic model, veering left of centre. Of course, one cannot deny that PM Modi has widened and deepened administrative reform but failed abysmally when it comes to structural reform. He can take credit for DeMO which was an unmitigated disaster in terms of causing massive demand destruction even as it served the short term goal of crippling Mayawati’s cash economy just before the UP elections. But he can’t do the same for an under and ill prepared GST which was rammed down the throat of India and has wreaked havoc on small businesses, traders and exporters. For the finance minister was adamant that this reform should be pushed despite the whole wide world asking for a brief extension.
The mismanagement of the fuel economy is the latest measure of arrogance as the government brazens it out. Their thinking predicated on the fact that those who can afford Rs 60 can afford Rs 70 and then Rs 80 and so on, even as household budgets turn into wastelands. Excise hikes and VAT have resulted in almost Rs 450,000 crore accruing to the centre and states, courtesy a spike in crude prices, but with no respite forthcoming for the common man. The scenario that exists in India currently reminds me of 1989 where the challenger Raja of Manda VP Singh discredited PM Rajiv Gandhi besieged as he was over Bofors, IPKF action in Sri Lanka, a defamation bill to curb scurrilous writing and criminal imputation, Shah Bano and even the promise of Ram Rajya breaks free of the Congress to architect Jan Morcha. Three blocks emerged then too — a tattered and tired Congress under the shadow of Bofors, a fractious but united opposition under VP Singh and the BJP. VP Singh was seen as a messiah with his earthy metaphors and biting sarcasm raising the war cry of Bofors ka dalal kaun? Rajiv Gandhi, came the response from the groundswell. Accompanied by his comrades in arms Arun Nehru and Arif Mohd Khan, the splinter targeted Rajiv Gandhi personally very much like what PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi are doing to one another right now.
For the first time since Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency debacle, the index of opposition unity manifested itself as the National Front under VP Singh won 143 seats, the once invincible but now completely isolated Congress 197, the BJP 85 and the Left 45 seats. Imagine the BJP and Left combined to support NF even as Rajiv Gandhi told president R Venkatraman that he could not form the govt. Knowing fully well that there were inherent contradictions in this patchwork quilt, it all fell apart very quickly. It began on the wrong foot. In a dramatic meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament on 1 December, VP Singh proposed the name of Devi Lal as Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that he himself had been clearly projected by the anti-Congress forces as the ‘clean’ alternative to Rajiv and their prime ministerial candidate. Devi Lal, a Jat leader from Haryana, stood up and refused the nomination, and said that he would prefer to be an ‘elder uncle’ to the government, and that Singh should be PM. This stunned Chandra Shekhar, the former head of the erstwhile Janata Party, and Singh’s bête noire within the Janata Dal. Shekhar, who had clearly expected that an agreement had been forged with Lal as the consensus candidate, stormed out of the meeting and refused to serve in the Cabinet.
The fissures and knives were out soon. Imagine the Indian Right and Left supporting centrist forces, the dichotomy burst out in the open. His government fell after VP Singh along with Lalu Prasad Yadav government , had LK Advani arrested in Samastipur (Bihar) and stopped his Ram Rath Yatra which was going to the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya on 23 October 1990 and the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support to the VP Singh government which lost a parliamentary vote of confidence on 7 November 1990. Along came Chandra Shekhar who broke away from the Janata Dal with 64 MPs and formed the Samajwadi Janata Party in 1990. He got outside support from the Congress and became the 11th prime minister of India. He finally resigned on 6 March 1991, after the Congress alleged that the government was spying on Rajiv Gandhi. The wheel had come full circle, another perilous experiment with coalition truth had been exposed.
Now 27 years later as you go into the final bend of the grand hustings of 2019 (perhaps even earlier in November 2018 itself), the faux construct of another alliance is in place with the same contradictions and hunger for the top job. The experiment in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, more recently in Karnataka and now in Kairana (UP) and Palghar where Sena is fighting BJP in Maharashtra ( Palghar in Maharashtra is seen as a big test for the BJP-led NDA alliance. Its long-time ally Shiv Sena has been particularly restive of late. Whatever rapport his father Balasaheb Thackeray had with the BJP, and in the main Pramod Mahajan, son Uddhav wants to rethink.) These results will add to the confusion. The BJP is thinking that it is fighting Congress in 2019 and vice versa. Both may fall short of the big number of 272, BJP marginally and Congress hugely. It is the regional satraps who will dominate - Mamata Banerjee in Bengal (42 seats), Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati (80 seats) in UP, RJD along with Congress in Bihar (40 seats), Sena and NCP in Maharashtra (48 seats), Tamil Nadu (39 seats) which may well see a quadrangular contest DMK vs AIADMK vs Rajnikanth vs Kamal Hassan, Andhra Pradesh (25) where Chandrababu Naidu's TDP is dominant, Telengana (17 seats) where K Chandrasekhar Rao calls the shots and Odisha (21 seats) where Naveen Patnaik still rules.
Congress should do well in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Karnataka, perhaps New Delhi where there will be a triangular contest with AAP and BJP for the seven seats. Equally, the BJP will polarise voters and do well in the Hindi Hindu heartland of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, parts of MP, Gujarat, Himachal, Chattisgarh and Karnataka. Despite ruling in 20 states, the BJP has no presence in large swathes of India — 2 MPs in AP, 1 in Telengana, 1 in Odisha, 1 in Tamil Nadu, 3 in Bengal, none in Kerala.
In 2014, BJP got 73 along with Apna Dal in UP, 22 in Bihar out of 40, 23 in Maharashtra, 10 in Chattisgarh, 12 in Jharkhand, 17 in Karnataka, 26 in Gujarat, 27 in MP, 25 in Rajasthan, 7 out of 7 in Delhi and 5 out of 5 in Uttarakhand. A collective federal front say under the leadership of a Yashwant Sinha and a few more rebels from the BJP may do a lot better if they get their calculus right. It may well be that the BJP falls short and as a political pariah like Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 becomes the single largest party, but cannot form the govt and the federal front bickering over who will head the government because the Congress will want to foist its man actually ends up in power with the Congress supporting it from outside. Obviously the pulls and pressures on this type of government will be immense, the internecine sniping in the Republic of Khichdi a given with the ability to combust at any point in time weighed as it will be under congenital contradictions, almost paradoxical.
This scenario has many game changers, first and foremost remains PM Modi’s unparalleled popularity and skill as a demagogue, he will obviously be the campaigner in chief and complementing him will be Amit Shah’s fabled booth management techniques using tireless karyakartas as the vanguard. As Mark Zuckerberg says, strategy is about making choices; trade offs, it is deliberately choosing to be different. PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi may well have to recalibrate their battleplans for the India of 2018-19 is different from that of April-May 2014. Growth and development have been consigned to the ashes of history; Hindu majoritarianism, anti minority-ism and hope and fear dominate the political narrative.