Who’ll Be Batting at No. 2?
How Congress comes out of this polls season will decide the BJP’s challenger
No. 2 is an important position to be in. It comes with a ready tag of the challenger and some measure of guarantee to be taken seriously. Many enterprising politicians have used this post to good effect, some to stage comebacks and others just to stay in play.
The upheaval in Indian politics, starting with the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to the impressive political conquest of Narendra Modi from Gandhinagar to New Delhi, has meant that much of the focus has been on the displacement at the top of the leader board. And thereafter, on how the new political dispensation fared: from its gains in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand to its limitations in Delhi and Bihar.
The current set of state elections turn the spotlight on the second spot. Of course, this is partly because the BJP doesn’t have much to lose in any of these states. But more significantly, this marks the start of a formidable battle to determine the probable challenger to the BJP dispensation. Would it be just one individual face or a party? Or would it be a crew of anti-BJP regional satraps strung together by common purpose? Or would it be a fragmented opposition pulling in different directions?
The elections should not be seen in isolation. They come at a time when the BJP’s ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’ st- rategy is in top gear with nearly every Congress state government facing more heat by the day (‘The BJP project of a Congress-Mukt Bharat is reshaping the political space’, State of Play, March 7, goo.gl/UOPp8C).
Add to that any plausible electoral reversals in this round and the Opposition space opens up for a new prime contender. Having weathered the Bihar setback, the BJP is quite enjoying this transfer of pressure, knowing well that it can wade into the uncertainty and cause enough mayhem, if not some serious damage.
Get the Perception Right…
The real issue here is perception. The last assembly election the Congress won was in Arunachal Pradesh in 2014, a state where it has now lost power. Before that, it was Karnataka in 2013. So, any sort of electoral victory would be a major plus on the perception graph for the Congress.
A defeat would, in a backhanded way, strengthen the perception that the BJP is now the country’s principal national party. But, more importantly, it would also cement a growing view that the Congress cannot take on the BJP alone.
Either way, this will impact upcoming elections in Gujarat and Punjab, which have usually been more of a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress until now. The AAP has already registered its presence in Punjab. So, will the anti-BJP vote fragment or consolidate? A lot of that hinges on how the Congress fares because its electoral performance is crucial to its ability to play the lead role in the opposition camp. The BJP understands this. Hence the onslaught on the Congress at all levels.
And, the problem is compounded when you bring electoral finances to the picture. It’s now a bit of an open secret that compared to its pre-2014 days, the Congress is today facing a real resource crunch. Losing a state every two weeks isn’t helping either.
Let’s not forget, through 2004 to 2014 when the BJP was in opposition, it had a clutch of important states in its control: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and, intermittently, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Chief ministers are an important resource to a political party besides conveying a sense of political clout. Modi and Amit Shah are aware of this, and know how losing power in states dries up the sinews of a political party.
The capacity to raise resources is vital for a party and the No. 2 label does help in this regard. A more dispersed opposition without a clear challenger makes this exercise more difficult, a situation the BJP would be playing for given that most of these parties have essentially been antiCongress forces. A make-up of the sort Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad achieved isn’t easy to replicate.
Also, the Congress is a bigger challenge to many regional parties than the BJP. In fact, barring Uttar Prade- sh and Bihar, the BJP hardly contests against any regional party, it’s mostly the Congress. Take Odisha. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) still views the Congress as its principal challenger despite the deep inroads the BJP has made in the state. That means any collaboration to keep the Congress in check is possible with the BJD, an option that BJP may explore with other regional parties as well.
…And Then the Positioning
The elections, regardless of the results, will start the process of addressing the confusion. The nature of repositioning around the Congress, and of the Congress itself, will determine who or what combine occupies the No. 2 space. This stage is necessary before a serious challenge can be mounted on the BJP, which, in turn, will hope to trip up this process.
And, interestingly, the party’s nominal presence in many states is actually working to its advantage, allowing it enough latitude to influence this second-rung play.
Will there be a partnership or a mix-up?