Cometh the hour, cometh the man!” goes the saying (and we may improve it by adding “woman”). With national polls practically at the door, we shall know who the man or the woman is going to be only after the election has flashed past us, not before, such is the tricky electoral wicket. The political scene is riddled with uncertainties.
If the Congress has notched up tide-turning recent victories in states, the BJP has enviable organisational prowess and vast money resources with which to dazzle the voter, browbeat opponents, and win over turncoats, in addition to the crowd-pulling abilities of PM Narendra Modi.
Until a month and a half ago, when the Assembly election results for three key Hindi heartland results came in, it was plausible to give Mr Modi higher probability marks than others for leading the next coalition government at the Centre. But the situation has not remained static.
In order to avoid misconceptions, it is necessary to underline that we are firmly in the coalition universe already. Even the present government is a coalition of several parties, a political khichri, with the BJP leading it. The BJP is unlikely to have won 31 per cent of the national vote in 2014 (and enough Parliament seats to have a majority on its own) if it had fought the polls alone.
Especially given the none-too-bright record of the present regime, few can doubt that the next government too will be a coalition. With its customary shrewdness, BJP’s progenitor RSS recently let out that a hung Parliament was the most likely eventuality in the current situation, puncturing any possible bravado talk on the BJP’s part of winning a majority.
The BJP’s present attack line that the Opposition parties offer only unstructured chaos is, thus, plain unsubtle propaganda. The point really is which political parties line up on which side of the basic ideological and political dividing line that separates the BJP from the Congress.
Further, all concerned will be keenly watching which leader from the BJP or from the ranks of its rivals is likely to attract the most support in a hung Parliament. There are noteworthy probable claimants for the top job on both sides. Their names are a subject of open speculation.
Being the incumbent leader, Mr Modi is, of course, the pre-eminent contender from the BJP-RSS quarters. His capacity to draw attention can never be in doubt. But his government coming up short on delivery in the wake of turbo-charged propaganda at every step, its principal characteristic, has boosted hopes not only among rival parties, but also (with RSS blessings) of some within the saffron camp.
On the other side of the fence, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has, in the course of two gruelling years, slow-marched his way into the arc of contention — first encircling the countryside, as it were, in line with Chairman Mao’s famous dictum. His putative secular camp rivals for the top job after the election — principally West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and BSP leader Mayawati — appear to be more virtual reality than reality.
In fact, what they seem to possess is their derived status (besides their ambition). They will get any traction at all if and only if Rahul Gandhi’s Congress either produces more MPs than the BJP does or is just a shade behind the BJP in parliamentary numbers, and not if it falls disappointingly short of a certain threshold.
In short, if the Congress does poorly, the non-Congress secular camp pretenders to the throne that make so much anti-BJP noise these days will also be ambushed by history. Can distributaries be bigger than the mainstream eventually, no matter how much froth they produce?
Mr Gandhi’s case is, in fact, an instructive one. His rising stature in public estimation (and acceptability as a political figure of substance) came into full view with the Gujarat Assembly election of 2017 when his party nearly snatched a victory from the entrenched BJP-RSS in the state although it had been a low-impact customer for long, and practically absent from Gujarat’s electoral calculus in the preceding two decades.
The Nehru-Gandhi scion was the indefatigable star campaigner for his side. He first united a divided state party and got it battle-ready. He showed sang froid and negotiating skill when he successfully pulled in non-party young firebrands like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakore, whose hallmark was rebellion, to do battle alongside him.
Mr Gandhi also overcame the doubts of a deeply sceptical public. When one recalls that period, it is possible to make the argument that if PM Modi was not a Gujarat native, and if he hadn’t pleaded with the voters to come to his aid as he faced an acid test, his party may well have come off second best.
A few months later, it became evident that Gujarat was not a flash in the pan for the Congress leader. His campaigning energy and political strategising stopped a rampaging BJP in Karnataka. Mr Modi and BJP president Amit Shah worked as hard in the Karnataka Assembly election as they had done in Gujarat, but this was of no avail. For them, in Karnataka, the “home-state effect” was absent.
Later the same year, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (bitterly feuding Congress factions were made to cooperate in these states too) fell to the Congress as the BJP was forced to cede space even in regions of these states where the RSS had been entrenched practically since Independence.
Elections are hard to call, but there seems to be a certain wind blowing that disturbs the equanimity of the ruling dispensation. It is the fast-changing texture of politics which has compelled the government — in an attempt to woo back voters — to allow education and job quotas even for income tax-payers among the Hindu upper castes, and this strikes people as odd.
A government that had set out to bring about economic, social and political reform is obliged to take recourse to old-fashioned reservation policies to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.
It is not confident enough to bank on the premise that while the Congress had notched up Assembly wins, voters do a different arithmetic for Lok Sabha elections. Psephology suggests that in India’s case the Parliamentary vote tends to go the same way as in an Assembly if the voting for the two is within six months of one another. That’s an added headache for the BJP, and a plus for Mr Gandhi.
But state polls are history. Now the Congress leader will be sorely tested in two areas. He must do better in UP than his opponents think. Priyanka Gandhi’s spectacular induction may be helpful here. Mr Gandhi also needs to bag a couple of pre-poll allies. That’ll be a crucial asset in augmenting numbers if the result shows a hung Parliament, as is more than likely.
Rahul Gandhi is the lone Opposition leader who has challenged this government and the PM across the board — on issues of economics, politics and ideology, besides the negative impact of policies on ordinary Indians; other Modi opponents have picked their battles selectively. He is the opponent the BJP fears.