The BJP goes south: Declining charisma of Sonia Gandhi (Commentary)

May 26th, 2008 - 3:02 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Sonia Gandhi
By Amulya Ganguli
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) success story continues. The party hasn’t really known any major failure since its Uttar Pradesh debacle, which it shared with the Congress. Since then, it has forged ahead while its great rival has been steadily falling behind. Over the last few months, the BJP has chalked up successes in Punjab (with the Akali Dal), Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and now in Karnataka. The last victory marks a watershed of sorts in its relatively brief career of less than three decades since it has now crossed the barrier of the Vindhyas, which separate the Deccan plateau from Aryavarta.

This successful foray into the south was eagerly sought by the BJP since it would establish the party as a “national” one rather than continue to be a purely north Indian outfit. The distinction at last puts it on par with the Congress.

The BJP had never been too happy to be known as an ultra-conservative party of the Hindus of north Indian district towns since it denied it an intellectual aura provided by an association with a metropolitan city.

Now, cosmopolitan Bengaluru (Bangalore) will fill that vacuum while the Karnataka outcome will show that it no longer has to depend on a regional ally - like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa - to venture out of the musty mofussil areas of the north.

True, such a tie-up with the regional outfit, the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S), first helped the BJP to secure a foothold in Karnataka. But the party must be pleased that the alliance fell apart since the “betrayal” by the JD-S was instrumental in helping the BJP scale greater heights.

As much is evident from the rise in the party’s tally of seats from 79 five years ago to 110 now, and in its voting percentages from 28.4 to 33.9. There is an unmistakable sign in these figures of the electorate’s clear preference for it over its opponents.

Similarly, the decline in the JD-S’ seats from 58 in 2004 to 28 at present, and in its voting percentages from 20.8 to 19.1, points not only to a sense of popular disillusionment but even of a feeling of suppressed anger.

The reason for such disenchantment was, of course, the disgraceful games played by the JDS’ father-and-son duo of H.D. Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy, who reneged on their pact with the BJP to share the chief minister’s position on a rotational basis. When the turn came for Kumaraswamy to give up his seat to the BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa, the then chief minister first dithered and then yielded ground with ill-concealed reluctance only to pull the rug from under Yeddyurappa’s feet after a mere 10 days.

That unilateral abrogation of a pact was preceded by the unedifying spectacle of Deve Gowda - a former prime minister of India - threatening to consume poison if his son entered into an alliance with the “communal” BJP, thereby besmirching the JD-S’ “secular” tag. But when Kumaraswamy’s ascent to the chief minister’s post was assured, the former prime minister put aside his vial of toxic potion.

All of this sordid melodrama could not but have helped the BJP. In any event, the party has been gradually establishing its hold on Karnataka from way back in 1991, when it startled the rest of India by securing 28 percent of the votes in the state. It is obvious that the Congress’s decline and the conversion of the JD-S into a family firm created the space for the BJP to grow.

It might still have been stalled if the Congress was able to get its act together. But for reasons of factional squabbling, which have always been the party’s Achilles heel, it could not halt the slide in its own fortunes.

For instance, when former chief minister S.M. Krishna was plucked out of the Mumbai Raj Bhavan and planted in Karnataka, the belief was that he would be the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate. But the Congress wouldn’t have been Congress if all its other aspirants did not gang up against the “intruder”. As such, Krishna was not fielded even as a candidate.

Interestingly, among his opponents from within his own party were not only former chief minister Dharam Singh and Dalit leader and longtime claimant for the post, Mallikarjun Kharge, but also the influential defector from the JD-S, Siddaramaiah. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it is hardly surprising that the broth was spoiled.

Although the Congress increased its tally of seats from 65 to 80, showing that a residue of goodwill survives for the party despite all its efforts to squander it, the Congress’ share of votes dropped from 35.2 percent to 34.6.

Unlike the Congress, there was no doubt about who would be the chief minister if the BJP came to power. Arguably, the party does not have too many leaders of repute either in the states or at the centre, where Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani are still miles ahead of the others.

Similarly, there is no one other than Yeddyurappa and former union minister Ananth Kumar in Karnataka. Incidentally, the two are not the best of friends. But such paucity of talent evidently helped the BJP to present a picture of purposeful while the Congress appeared confused and undecided.

The BJP’s appeal to the voters to give it a chance - as the party did at the central level in the mid-nineties - might have also struck a chord. After all, if the voters were to choose a “national” party, they would have preferred an untried one rather than a party which had been in power for long years in the past with nothing much to show for it.

What the outcome has also underlined is the declining charisma of Sonia Gandhi. Clearly, she is no longer the trump card for the Congress as in the run-up to the 2004 general election. This will be a worry for the party since the next general election is not too far away.

The Congress’s only hope now is for the anti-incumbency factor to operate against the BJP in the forthcoming Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elections. In Karnataka, the BJP did not have to face this problem. However, the Congress itself will face this problem in the elections for the Delhi assembly.

The BJP, in the meantime, can bask in the sunshine of its latest success.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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