The limits of electoral saffron

Following the Bharatiya Janata Party's electoral successes in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh during the recent assembly polls, India's national press seems intent on trying to impress upon its readership that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is on the comeback trail. That certainly seems to fit in with the party's own public-relations attempts; at this point, it is important explore whether what is being fed to the readership appears to add up to anything. Ultimately, it does not, given the fact that there are limits to voting success when the focus is not on economic or social welfare, but communalist division as a means of electoral advancement. Meanwhile, the BJP's allies seem to have added this factor to their calculations, which has led to their distance.

In recent months, L K Advani, the BJP's newly anointed candidate for prime minister, has been hectically trying to galvanise the party with a pledge to bring the BJP to victory in the Lok Sabha polls, currently scheduled for May 2009. Advani is currently on a campaign, heavily flavoured with Hindutva ingredients, that is now crisscrossing the whole of India. After the BJP's National Council endorsed his prime-ministerial candidature last December, in his first speech, at Jabalpur, he described "Jihadi terrorism" as one of "the biggest threats facing the country". Inherent in this is an idea on which increasingly heavy emphasis will be placed as the campaign gets underway: that Hindus are under threat from Muslims, and that only the BJP can 'save' them.

During the 1999 parliamentary elections, one of the major factors behind the BJP's win of 182 seats was the alliances it was able to forge with parties such as the Telugu Desam, Shiv Sena, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and so on. During the subsequent polls, in 2004, the BJP's strength was reduced to 138 seats, following the desertion of such several allies. Moreover, out of those 138 seats, the BJP retained just 90 of those it had won in 1999.

Of the Lok Sabha's 543 constituencies, BJP party bosses have identified 297 where the party is currently in play, many of which so regarded due to years of communal tension. These assumptions also have precedent, as these 297 seats were taken from a list of constituencies where the BJP has won at least once since 1989. The hoped-for numbers would certainly signal a rise from the party's current 138 seats in the Lok Sabha, and would be significant against the backdrop of the party's slide in recent years. While the BJP's national vote share rose from 11 percent in 1989 to 25 percent in 1998, it dropped to 22 percent during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. But in the current context, even those numbers look largely unattainable.

If a poor showing in May 2009 is inevitable, it is perhaps due to the fact that the BJP is depending for votes almost wholly on emotive and divisive communal issues, paying little more than lip service to the economic issues of the poor. Indeed, the BJP has concentrated on establishing vote banks that also double as communal havens. But the parliamentary constituencies also include large chunks of anti-BJP and secular votes, which will not be swept by the Hindutva wave. As such, attaining 297 seats – or even a simple majority – in the 2009 elections looks virtually impossible for the BJP.

Finding friends
Against such a backdrop, it is likely that the BJP will attempt to adopt three strategies, in the hopes of making a bad situation relatively better. First, the party leaders, through the NDA, will attempt to forge alliances with other parties. Second, they will try to cash in on the weaknesses of the enemy – ie, the Congress and other secular parties. And third, the party will begin working to create new communal havens. This last, of course, spells danger for the Indian polity, particularly given what has taken place in the past.

The opportunities for the BJP (and the NDA it leads) to win new friends are relatively few. Indeed, in the current context it looks difficult even to win back old friends. Since 2002, after all, the Alliance had lost nine constituents, and getting them back into the fold looks to be an arduous task. In particular, regional parties have evolved somewhat different agendas, and there is real fear of losing minority votes this time around. The situation on this front differs from state to state, but there seems to be a general disadvantage for the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the party is currently wooing the former BJP veteran Uma Bharati, but her newly formed Bharatiya Janashakti Party has yet to actually win an election. On the other hand, if she contests the polls alone, it will almost certainly lead to the BJP losing some seats in the state.

The situation in Uttar Pradesh may be similar, if even more dire. Following Chief Minister Mayawati's recent win in this crucial state, the popularity of her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is still on the upswing, energised particularly by its formula of social engineering and its unique alliance of Brahmins and Dalits. And, since Dalits constitute more than 15 percent of the electorate in Madhya Pradesh, the BSP could well make a dent in the BJP's communal havens in that state, as well.

Prospects look a bit better in Tamil Nadu. Following the drubbing in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) parted ways. But now, AIADMK leader Jayalalitha, desperate to re-capture power in the state, is working overtime to mend ties with the BJP. Following Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat in late December, Jayalalitha hosted a sumptuous congratulatory lunch for Modi in Madras. Her political discourse has become increasingly aligned with the tone and tenor of Hindutva – for instance, newly demanding the cancellation of the Sethusamudram Canal Project, a longtime pet cause for the BJP. Meanwhile, along with the AIADMK, Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) would undoubtedly also team up with the BJP. Given the combined strength of these two groups, the BJP might do well in Tamil Nadu. At the same time, however, the DMK-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) remains a particularly tough challenger in the state.

The national situation is far from straightforward, even within the NDA's remaining members. Other than the Shiv Sena, each of the six current constituents is uncomfortable with the BJP's attitude towards minorities. A case in point is the position of Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, in West Bengal. On 22 January, she skipped a key meeting of NDA leaders, and earlier had to promise to have no truck with the BJP during the coming local elections. Banerjee fears that the BJP's anti-Muslim policies could negatively affect her electoral chances.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has likewise distanced his party, the Janata Dal (United), from the BJP's victory in Gujarat, despite the fact that the JD (U) remains central to the NDA grouping. In fact, in the recent Gujarat assembly elections, Kumar campaigned for his 36 candidates by opposing the "BJP led by Narendra Modi", though in the end won only a single seat. In 2006, the central government earmarked 15 percent of funds for the purpose of economic development of officially declared minorities, and, being aware of the sensibilities of the Bihari Muslim population, Kumar welcomed the initiative, terming it "social budgeting". This was a direct play on the previous description of the funding, by Narendra Modi, as "communal budgeting". The Bihar chief minister furthermore gave clear evidence that he had not accepted the aggressive tenets of 'Moditva'. Nonetheless, given its continued membership in the NDA, the JD (U)'s relationship with the saffron party will undoubtedly continue into the next general elections – an association that could well benefit the BJP. At the same time, it remains an open question whether the anti-incumbency factor against the Nitish Kumar government will impact on the national polls' final results.

The Biju Janata Dal, in Orissa, can similarly ill afford to ignore the Muslim vote, and may thus find significant difficulty in coping with the evolved Moditva face of the BJP. Orissa's neo-liberal, corporate-friendly government, headed by Naveen Patnaik, has been increasingly alienated from the state's poor, and the resultant anti-incumbency will undoubtedly dominate the parliamentary elections. As such, Advani's hope of getting, as he puts it, "the additional 64 constituencies from … stable allies in the NDA – the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, Janata Dal and Biju Janata Dal" runs dramatically contrary to the existing realities. The final constituent from the 1999 alliance, the Nagaland People's Front, likewise has yet to return to the NDA fold.

Dinosaur alliances
Alliance politics in India have changed irrevocably over the past decade. Today, there are several parties that neither the BJP-led NDA nor the Congress-led UPA can win over, each of which could ultimately play an important role in any future dispensation in New Delhi. These are the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, the Asom Gana Parishad (of Assam) and the left parties.

Take the example of Uttar Pradesh. As India's most populous and electorally powerful state, UP almost always has had a decisive say in the formation of the government at the Centre. During the UP assembly elections last year, the BJP was the biggest loser, with its vote share slumping to 17 percent – down by more than three percent since just 2002, and down by more than 15 percent in just over a decade. But the election results last year were not bad news just for the BJP. Today, the battle lines are drawn increasingly boldly between the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, with the two cumulatively sharing more than 56 percent of the vote. Such a figure thoroughly marginalises both the Congress and the BJP; a good performance by the BSP in the parliamentary elections could well result in further losses for both the national parties.

Even as the BJP tries to find friends with which to shore up its strength, it will attempt to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Congress and other anti-BJP parties. The main advantage for the party here is the fact that most of these other groupings have a fairly uneven presence across the breadth of India. While the left parties are staunchly anti-Hindutva, for instance, they are capable of fully taking on the BJP in only three states – West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. In addition, the Congress has not only failed to devise a proper strategy to counter the BJP's divisive anti-minority plank, but has long striven to give the impression of being little more than a 'soft' version of Hindutva. Even in Rajasthan, where, as in Gujarat, anti-incumbency anger against the BJP government of Vasundhara Raje was rife, the Congress proved incapable of building on this momentum in the recent elections, largely because it was also in poor shape.

Other contests between the Congress and BJP, however, are more likely to rebound on the latter. Perhaps the weakest spot for the BJP lies in its economic policies. During the last parliamentary elections, it tried to sell a version of neo-liberalism in the name of 'Shining India', which was roundly rejected by the people. In the meantime, the BJP does not seem to have developed an alternative economic agenda to add to its prime pull factor, which is divisive communalism. Meanwhile, the main discontent against the current UPA government continues to be that it has been following policies that were put in place by the last NDA government. Given its most recent rhetoric, the BJP cannot possibly begin projecting alternative, people-oriented policies that would stand a chance of catching the imagination of the people, especially the downtrodden.

Southern bulwark
Perhaps the last viable option for the BJP to salvage its 'comeback' is to create new communal hot spots, particularly in areas where the Sangh Parivar has penetrated over the past years. Observers have long noted that one of the most lucrative opportunities for the BJP lie in South India. However, the possibility of the Sangh achieving a significant expansion in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or Kerala looks remote. In these states, the major regional parties not only have formidable organisational networks, but also strong ideological roots.

In Kerala, where the left is deeply grounded, the BJP has yet to make any inroad whatsoever, remaining unable to win even a single seat during the last election. In combination with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), it seems the BJP is nonetheless attempting to create communal polarisation in the state. In Andhra Pradesh, a similar process is underway. The BJP fought the 2005 municipal elections without an alliance, and ended up winning only 86 seats out of a total 3500. Here, too, the BJP is now actively attempting to polarise various areas, for example, by raising the bogey of Christian proselytisation and alleging a spurt in evangelical activities in the Tirumala Hills.

The uniqueness of Tamil Nadu in this context is that Dravidian ideology, still engrained in the Tamil consciousness, continues to act as something of a rampart against Hindutva. The basic tenets of Hindutva, after all, are in direct contradiction with the ideals of rationalism and self-respect that were preached by E V Ramasami ('Periyar'), the founder of the Dravidian movement. For this reason, the BJP's strategy of forging alliances with the two major rival political parties, the DMK and AIADMK, to try to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu has thus far failed miserably.

The Sangh Parivar has built up some communal havens in Karnataka, particularly in the coastal areas. However, the BJP's credibility in Karnataka is also at an all-time low at the moment, largely due to its perceived opportunism in maintaining alliances. But the public's scepticism could well lead to activists ramping up their efforts in the near future, and the systematic attacks on minorities by the Sangh could quickly result in communal frenzy, potentially helping to create the grounds for the growth of Hindutva forces. This time-tested tactic has been enacted in multiple states in recent times, including the latest attacks against Christians, most of whom are Dalits and Adivasis, in Kandhamal, Orissa.

But even as the predictions of a 'saffron wave' in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections may hit wide of the mark, it is important to remember that both the NDA and the UPA could ultimately fall short of a majority. The combined votes of the Congress and the BJP in the last two elections have been below 50 percent, after all, and this trend will undoubtedly continue. In such a situation, non-BJP and non-Congress parties, along with the emerging 'Third Front' being discussed in left circles, could receive half of the votes and seats. As such, over the course of the next year the true excitement could come from watching the emergence of some sort of Third Front, comprised of secular democratic parties and the left front. In that event, however, such a Third Front must not be just an arithmetic outcome, nor a mere electoral or seat-sharing arrangement. Rather, it must provide a durable alternative for the people, to act as a bulwark against both the communal BJP and the decadent Congress.

~ N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer in Madras.

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