Vajpayee can still smile

THE CONGRESS party has done rather well in the state elections, but Sonia Gandhi looks unlikely to come to power at the Centre. The BJP has done rather badly in the state elections, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee can still hope to win the next general election. That is the paradoxical picture emerging from the state polls.

Pollsters had suggested that the Congress and its allies would squeeze out narrow victories in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In fact, the Congress enjoyed a landslide in both places, and is also set to form governments in Assam and Pondicherry.

In West Bengal the party fared well below expectations, but most of the blame for that will fall on Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee. She has been detached from the BJP and may stay detached.

After the state elections, the Congress now rules, by itself or with others, in more than half the country — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Assam and sundry north-eastern states.

By contrast, the BJP and its allies have done badly in all five states which went to the polls. It has failed dismally to create a bridgehead in the south, and did not open its account in Kerala or Pondicherry.

It looks certain to receive a drubbing in the Uttar Pradesh election next year.

Sonia Gandhi can cock a snook at all those glib analysts who wrote her off after her defeat in the last general election. Yet Vajpayee has reason to smile quietly at the state election outcome.

Political dynamics in the states are very different from those at the Centre, and the poll results confirm that the dynamics in New Delhi still favour the BJP.

Let us be clear about one thing. The voters of India have not decided that the Congress and its allies are good guys, or that the BJP and allies are bad guys.

Voters regard all parties as corrupt and callous, and vent their anger on the current bunch of rascals by voting in the equally rascally bunch they voted out last time.

This is widely called the anti-incumbency factor, and gives the ruling party everywhere hope as well as fear. Even if a ruling party is absolutely flattened at the polls, it need not fear extinction.

It need not indulge in any great soul-searching or internal reform. It simply has to wait for voters to get tired of the new bunch of rascals, and then present itself as the only alternative.

This simple truth was invisible to all those who declared that the Congress was in terminal decline after its recent defeats. Even in defeat, the party remained an important force in state politics, ruling several and coming second in many others.

Indeed, the Congress is demonstrably stronger in the states than the BJP is. Despite having declined from the Nehru-Indira heyday, the Congress is very much an all-India party, boasting some strength everywhere.

By contrast, the BJP has been unable to make a mark beyond its traditional bastions in the north and west. It remains a fringe player in the south and east.

The naive may believe this puts the Congress party in a better long-term position than the BJP. But the very opposite is true. Strength in the states has become an albatross around the neck of the Congress.

Why? Because India is now a highly plural polity in which no single party can hope to come to power on its own in New Delhi, and the ability to form coalitions is all-important.

A country as diverse as India is tailor-made for coalition politics. This fact was obscured for some time by the dominance the Congress temporarily obtained as the party that led the country to Independence.

That era is now gone. Today, India is fairly and squarely in an era of coalition politics. No single party can hope to dominate. So, what matters is not simply the number of seats a party has, but its ability to cohabit with others.

This is where the Congress is at a grave disadvantage. In many states, regional parties like Telugu Desam Party, Akali Dal, BLD and Asom Gana Parishad have come up.

All view the Congress as a natural foe. The BJP finds it much easier to tie up with these regional parties, since it is not their natural foe.

In due course, the BJP may have ambitions of becoming a major power in every state. But for the foreseeable future it will remain in third, fourth or fifth position in many states. In all these places, it will be better placed to tie up with parochial parties than the Congress.

This was demonstrated graphically in 1999 when the BJP was voted out of office in New Delhi, yet the Congress was unable to persuade others to rally behind it and form an alternative government.

Other opposition parties, notably the Samajwadi Party, were not willing to accept Congress leadership. And, despite pulling the government down, the Congress found itself unable to detach regional parties from the BJP-led alliance.

Having failed in such favourable conditions to build a majority coalition, its prospects of doing so next time remain poor.

In the next general election in 2004, the anti-incumbency factor should, at the national level, favour the Congress. Yet voters are influenced at least as much by local politics as national.

In 2004, the Congress and its allies will be ruling across more than half of India, and in these areas the anti-incumbency factor could go the BJP’s way.

On balance, I imagine the BJP will get fewer seats in Parliaments in 2004. Yet any gains the Congress may make will probably leave it short of power.

It will still need the support of a large number of regional or caste-based parties, and will fail to get this because it is their natural foe in state politics.

This will make Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s job much easier. He can lose a lot of ground and yet hope to regain power. Not many prime ministers enjoy such latitude.

What do you think?