THE MAN­MO­HAN RAO MO­MENT

India Today - - UPFRONT -

Do you re­mem­ber the Narasimha Rao govern­ment? If not, here’s what hap­pened: Rao was first hailed as a states­man who lib­er­alised the econ­omy and re- ori­ented our for­eign pol­icy. Then, halfway through his term, ev­ery­thing col­lapsed. Re­forms halted, the econ­omy slowed and his govern­ment was rocked by cor­rup­tion scan­dals. Some min­is­ters went to jail. Oth­ers re­signed. And through it all, Rao re­mained a silent, in­de­ci­sive fig­ure.

The par­al­lels are ob­vi­ous. Dur­ing his first term, Man­mo­han Singh too was hailed as the great re­former and states­man. But now, the re­forms have dried up, the econ­omy has splut­tered to a near halt, the Prime Min­is­ter is seen as a dither­ing som­nam­bu­list and each week brings a new cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

The real sig­nif­i­cance of Narasimha Rao’s term lay in what fol­lowed: Two years of chaos. Vot­ers re­fused to give a clear man­date. In­stead, In­dia went through a dam­ag­ing pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity as squab­bling Third Front gov­ern­ments made a mess of rul­ing the coun­try.

The re­sults of a poll con­ducted by CVoter for the In­dia To­day Group sug­gest that his­tory might re­peat it­self. The sur­vey shows that even if the Congress and the BJP came to­gether, they still would not have enough seats to com­mand a ma­jor­ity in the new Par­lia­ment. The most likely out­come of an elec­tion is a frac­tured man­date re­sult­ing in a Third Front govern­ment.

This sce­nario is not as hope­less as it sounds— at least not for the BJP. No­body in the Sangh has for­got­ten that the Third Front chaos in the 1990s was fol­lowed by the Va­j­payee govern­ment. The BJP now aims to fast- for­ward the process so that it avoids the Third Front in­ter­reg­num and moves di­rectly to a sit­u­a­tion where it takes of­fice.

The BJP’s orig­i­nal rise to power was a two- step process. First, the Ay­o­d­hya move­ment awak­ened Hindu sen­ti­ment and then, when vot­ers had tired of the chaos of the Third Front years, the BJP promised clean gov­er­nance in the form of the mod­er­ate A. B. Va­j­payee.

So, BJP’s best hope of com­ing to power next year is to first pump up Hindu sen­ti­ment and then mul­ti­ply this sup­port with the prom­ise of bet­ter, more hon­est gov­er­nance. And in­deed, this is the strat­egy adopted by the Naren­dra Modi cam­paign.

This strat­egy re­quires Modi to stand from some­where like Varanasi and gen­er­ate a Hindu wave in Ut­tar Pradesh, win­ning up­per- caste votes. Modi will then ap­peal to the rest of In­dia as a man who gets things done and has no tol­er­ance for cor­rup­tion. Ac­cord­ing to CVoter, such a strat­egy will win the NDA around 220 seats. Even if it then loses Ni­tish Kumar, it will still get J. Jay­alalithaa and other al­lies; enough to push it over the 272 mark.

There are three prob­lems with this sce­nario. The first is Modi’s own bloody past. In the 1990s, the BJP de­lib­er­ately chose not to pro­ject the di­vi­sive rath ya­tri L. K. Ad­vani and se­lected Va­j­payee to at­tract sec­u­lar vot­ers. This time around, no mat­ter what the polls say, vot­ers may think twice be­fore fi­nally vot­ing for the po­lar­is­ing Modi.

The sec­ond prob­lem is the Mus­lim vote. The CVoter sur­vey con­cedes that Mus­lims will unite against a Modi- led BJP. But it ar­gues that, just as they did in the late 1990s, Mus­lims will pre­fer such re­gional par­ties as the SP to the Congress. Even if this is true to­day, the Congress still has a full year to win over the Mus­lim vote. If it can suc­ceed in do­ing that, then the UPA’s tally will go up.

The fi­nal prob­lem is that the strat­egy as­sumes that the Congress that goes into the elec­tion will be iden­ti­cal to to­day’s party. In the 1990s, we knew that Narasimha Rao and his bunch of dis­cred­ited pen­sion­ers were stand­ing for re- elec­tion. So, the Congress of­fered no hope and stood no chance. But what if the Congress goes into the 2014 elec­tion led not by Man­mo­han Singh and his tired old Cabi­net but by a new gen­er­a­tion ( not just Rahul Gandhi but the dozens of charis­matic young lead­ers whose am­bi­tions have been sup­pressed till now by the old guard)?

Would the Congress then be able to present it­self as an al­ter­na­tive to Man­mo­han Singh’s band of se­nior cit­i­zens? Would it be able to of­fer what Ra­jiv Gandhi did in 1984: Gen­er­a­tional change with longterm con­ti­nu­ity?

Per­haps. But will this hap­pen? Will Rahul ac­tu­ally come out and lead from the front? Will the young guard be al­lowed to take the ini­tia­tive? So far, at least, we have no an­swers.

Vir Sanghvi is a colum­nist and

an­chor

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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