Who’ll Be Bat­ting at No. 2?

How Congress comes out of this polls sea­son will de­cide the BJP’s chal­lenger

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Pranab Dhal Sa­manta

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?

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