THE MANMOHAN RAO MOMENT
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