The latest opinion poll by C-Voter for Times Now is interesting for three reasons: it acknowledges one thing we already know, and raises two possibilities that we had hoped we wouldn’t have to consider in 2014: a sub-optimal NDA gain, and an indeterminate coalition of regional parties that surely can’t last in power.
In summary, this is what the poll shows: a UPA total falling dramatically by 93 seats from 227 in 2009 to 134 now; an NDA rising from 132 to just 156 – a gain of a mere 24 seats (thanks largely to the Janata Dal(U)’s exit); and a motley group of regional parties with 253 seats between them – a gain of 69 seats.
The most interesting numbers are these: Congress 119 and BJP 131. The two biggest parties are smaller (250) than the 32 regional and itsy-bitsy parties all over the country (253 between them). The rest are either UPA or NDA allies who are presumed to remain allies post-2014 (which may not be true though).
The good news is that we are going to be rid of the non-governance era of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi (or Manmonia, as economist Surjit Bhalla calls the duo). The bad news is it does not mean we will get a stable government even after that.
The broad conclusions that emerge from these numbers are these.
One, the national parties are shrinking at an alarming rate. If the polls are indicative of anything, it is that the two national parties have damaged each other. One is no longer a replacement for the other.
Two, there is no doubt about a tidal wave of popular opinion against the UPA. The Congress appears to be losing in most major states barring Karnataka – where its gains are the result of BJP harakiri.
Three, the benefits of anti-incumbency at the centre are being reaped in the states by the regional parties and not the BJP. Real power, as we all suspected, is now in the states. A corollary to this is that only national parties with regional leaders will be able to stem the tide.
The questions that arise from this poll are these: Why has the BJP failed to gain from a nation-wide rejection of the Congress? If the answer is that the regional parties are becoming stronger, how is it possible for any coalition at the centre to be stable? Moreover, is this the beginning of the end for national parties? Or is it that the national parties have to be redefine themselves and their agendas to survive?
My own answers to the questions are the following.
First, the blame for this hung verdict (which, of course, can change dramatically in the months ahead as the polls approach), must rest squarely with the BJP. Reason: till recently, the party had no leaders, no ideas, no coherence, no strategy at the national level. For much of the last four years, and even the five before that, the party had no gameplan to position itself as the alternative to the Congress despite the latter unveiling scam after scam and offering itself as an easy target.
Only a leadership as blind as the BJP’s could have allowed itself to miss this sitter. The party had unelectable leaders at the top who could offer TV soundbytes, but lacked a popular following. The party’s ideological mentor, the RSS, added to this mess by foisting another uncharismatic flunky – Nitin Gadkari – as the party president. It is only his ignominious exit that saved the day.
When a party does not have a clear and rooted leader to articulate a sensible position that voters can evaluate and opt for, it cannot inspire confidence. It does not matter if the leader is not particularly charismatic – as was the case with LK Advani till 2009 – but the lack of a leader means lack of strategy. Only a leader can articulate and develop strategy.
By choosing not to choose a leader till June 2013 (and even now leaving the situation vague), the BJP cheated itself. If the regional parties gain from the current anti-Congress mood, it is for a simple reason that the BJP left a vacuum. There are now regional alternatives to the BJP.
Second, with 2014 in sight, clearly the BJP has now seen the folly of its so-called collective leadership (it was a cacophony, not a leadership). It has now begun projecting a sense of who is the leader. The RSS has backed the imminent rise of Narendra Modi as PM candidate. If Advani does not play spoilsport again, this should help.
Third, for the Congress, the message is stark. Even if the BJP loses this election, or does not gain enough to form a government, it still has an ideology and regional leaders who can help the party rise again. But the Congress, by definition, does not allow regional leaders to rise. The Congress party outside the First Family has a choice: it can either retain the dynasty permanently as its mascot and become politically irrelevant as other parties throw up more regional leaders, or it can dump the family and build a new, empowered leadership for itself. Either way the First Family will lose. An emasculated Congress is of no use even to the family – except as an heirloom.
Fourth, and this is really interesting. The rise of strong regional parties and leaders is both an opportunity and a threat. If we accept the reality that political power has already descended to the states, it is clear that regional parties will rule the roast. But to govern and hold power at the centre, they must have a basic political programme, and possibly a system of rotational leadership so that no one regional leader ends up cannibalising the power of the rest. They need an agenda, and that agenda can be simple: a constitutional amendment that devolves economic power to the states, with the centre retaining only core functions such as defence, foreign affairs, fiscal and monetary policy, and a few other essentials. Even the legal system can be decentralised, with the Supreme Court having jurisdiction only for inter-state disputes, centre-state disputes or on basic issues such as citizenship and human rights.
If the regional parties do not have these simple agreements sewed up between them, we will see a repeat of 1989 or 2006.
Fifth, and this is where the national parties – and especially the BJP – have a chance to reset the agenda for 2014. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has strong state-level leaders. So it has a better chance of taking control of the devolution of power agenda than the Congress, whose entire agenda is centralisation of power with one family.
The BJP has to redefine its nationalism to recognise India as a “Union of States” rather than a European-style Nation-State. This is the only way it can find state-level allies and a state-level agenda to reap the benefits of UPA’s anti-incumbency.
To be sure, between now and 2014, the rise of Modi could change the script, but we don’t know what numbers it will finally leave the BJP with.
In the longer term, this is the prognosis, and it’s not based purely on the C-Voter poll: the Congress has a national future minus the First Family; the BJP has a future either as a bunch of regional satrapies or a national party with a strong devolution agenda; and the regional parties will have an accident-prone future if they cannot agree on a core agenda of devolution of power to the states.
Net-net: it is the BJP that can set the agenda for now, unless the Congress decides it has had enough of the family. The regional parties cannot set the agenda unless they can sort out a system of leadership for themselves. A government of equal regional leaders cannot last.