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Why Did the BJP Succeed?

Analysis of the 1999 election results in India


KN Panikkar


A fractured mandate again, even if the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has mustered enough support to form a government. No single party has got a majority, either in terms of votes or seats. While the BJP has just about maintained its earlier strength, the Congress has further declined. The Communist Party (Marxist) has barely held on to its seat share of the last election. Only the regional parties have managed to improve their position, whatever may be the reasons for the same. The Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam in Tamilnadu, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttarpradesh and Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, who jointly account for more than hundred seats, are the prominent among them. The opinion voiced by some during the election analysis that this election reflects a polarisation of political forces and India is moving towards a bipolar system is far from the truth. In fact, the two main parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress together account only for about three hundred seats. The rest, almost two hundred and fifty seats are in the kitty of smaller and regional parties.

The BJPís success in this election is mainly due to its coalition strategy. After the election of 1996, it was generally held that the era of a single party government is over and the future lies with coalitions based on a reconfiguration of political forces. The only party, which appears to have taken this lesson seriously, is the BJP. Given its communal ideological commitment and its active participation in the demolition of the Babri Masjid the BJP was not able to gather enough support to remain in power in 1996. As L.K.Advani recently confessed, the BJP then realised that it can not come to power without incorporating the regional parties into its support base. It therefore cobbled up an alliance of eighteen parties in 1998 and twenty-four in 99-- although they had nothing in common ideologically and programmatically-- by putting on the backburner its controversial Hindutva agenda. This strategy has yielded rich dividends in this election, as the NDA has managed to gain a comfortable majority, thanks to the performance of the allies. More than one-third of the seats of the NDA is their contribution, most of them in single digit. Rather than the charisma of Atal Behare Vajpayee it is the Vaikos, Ramadosses, Chautalas and Abdullas who made the success of the BJP possible. The critics of the BJP, particularly of the Left and secular, might decry this opportunistic strategy, but for the BJP the proof of the pudding is in eating it. The BJP leadership has shown enough resilience to compromise the present to ensure the future.

In contrast the Congress refused to come to terms with the present; instead it chose to cling to the past. It suffered from an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a misplaced trust in its nationalist legacy. It failed to realise that except in a few states the party machinery has corroded, no leadership worth the name existed and that its social base has considerably shrunk. These can hardly be recreated overnight as evidenced by the election results. The sympathetic crowds, which thronged the meetings of Sonia Gandhi, were not translated into votes primarily because the party did not have the machinery to do so. Some of its good candidates, like Manmohan Sing in Delhi, lost to relatively insignificant nominees of the BJP.

Unlike the BJP the Congress wrongly read the political present. It actually lost the election when it failed to provide an alternative after the fall of the BJP government. This failure was mainly due to a miscalculation of its potential. The only way the Congress could have made a come back was through a coalition government for which several political formations had pledged support. Without seriously pursuing it and declining support to a Left led government the Congress insisted on a single party government, failing which it opted for an election. The unexpected and impressive success in the assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh was perhaps the main factor, which influenced this rather intransigent and politically unwise decision. The Congress thus lost an opportunity to bring the secular forces together. As a consequence the Congress faced the election without any allies, except the highly tainted parties like AIDMK and RJD which instead of advancing its electoral prospects proved to be counter productive. Given the quick changes of government due to the failure of coalitions the Congress hoped to romp home on the plank of stability and single party rule. But a party riven with dissension and desertion could not enthuse such a confidence in the electorate. What actually sealed the fate of the Congress was the lack of allies in a fractured polity in which small parties wielded decisive power in several areas. Many of them are individual based parties without any clear-cut ideological moorings and therefore could be part of any political formation. While the BJP went out of its way to mop them up the Congress did not try to bring even the like minded parties to its fold.

The success of the BJP to a large measure is rooted in the failure of the third front to posit a viable alternative to both the Congress and the BJP at the national level. Much before the elections the third front had already disintegrated. The united front experiment of 1996 was short-lived. Its demise was largely pre-determined by the ëhistoric blunderí of the Left not accepting the primeministership and was hastened by the infighting among the constituents of the front. The BJPís grand design of coalition took shape from the ashes of the united front. But for that it would not have progressed much further than the 1996 position. Ironically the third front committed to defeat the Hindu communalism has actually facilitated its success.

Yet the third front still commands a political space as evident from the outcome of this election. The former partners of the third front, now dispersed in different camps, have done exceptionally well. Most of them like TDP, DMK, SP and RJD have gained success on their own strength and not riding piggyback either on the BJP or the Congress. If anything, the latter have gained from the influence of the former. For instance, but for the support of TDP and DMK the BJP would have drawn almost a blank in Andhra and Tamilnadu. The election therefore affords an important lesson: the mobilisation of Left-secular- democratic forces is still possible, provided there is a will to do so.

The BJPís rise to power is clearly not on its own social and political support. Neither its organisational strength nor the popularity of Atal Behare Vajpayee would have ensured its success. What enabled the success of the BJP is mainly the lack of political vision of social democrats. When the Hindutva agenda unfolds itself in the coming years they are likely to rue their unprincipled collaboration. For, this time around, the hidden agenda of the BJP is not likely to remain very much hidden.

KN Panikkar is a noted historian of modern India and a prominent commentator on issues relating to communalism in south Asia.
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