There is nation-wide anger against the Congress party for misgoverning the country and shamelessly celebrating three years of its misrule at the Centre. When the time comes to face the national electorate, in 2014 or earlier, it is certain to suffer a humiliating defeat.
That the prevailing anti-Congress mood in the country would help the principal rivals of the Congress party is a given. The moot question is whether the principal opposition party the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would be able to channelize the anti-Congress mood in their favour to return to power at the Centre. The answer to this key question lies in a disaggregated analysis of electoral situation that obtains in different states as the nature of electoral contests varies widely across states.
Broadly, all the states and union territories can be grouped into six categories. (Refer Battleground – The State Of Play) :
- ‘Head to Head’ in which the BJP and Congress are locked in straight contests (115 seats)
- ‘Multi-Cornered’ contests (Karnataka, Assam and Jharkhand) where the BJP and Congress have to contend with regional parties
- ‘Proxy Battles’ (Maharashtra and Punjab) where the BJP fights the Congress in alliance with NDA partners Shiv Sena and Akali Dal
- ‘Congress not a Player’ state (Bihar)
- ‘BJP not a Major Player’ states (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir etc.)
- “No Go Areas” for both the BJP and the Congress (West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and even Uttar Pradesh)
Of these, the BJP-led NDA, as it exists now, is a major political force only in the first four categories accounting for 272 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. In the remaining states, regional/ left parties are the principal rivals of the Congress and in the absence of a resurgent BJP, they alone would benefit from the Congress party’s decline.
Even as the Congress party’s fortunes are declining rapidly, the challenge for the BJP-led NDA to capitalize on the Congress losses is enormous. The BJP-led NDA appears set to make gains in some states, while it may repeat its good performance in most others.
Scope for Gain
In states with ‘Head to Head’ contests (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Himachal etc.), the unpopularity of the Congress party would ensure that the BJP would substantially improve its prospects. Of the 115 seats in these states, the BJP had won only 52 seats in 2009 Lok Sabha polls. A big gain in these states is likely.
The BJP can also hope to gain in ‘proxy battle’ states (Maharashtra and Punjab), where it won only 25 of the 61seats in 2009 polls.
Status Quo States
In states with multi-cornered contests like Karnataka, Assam and Jharkhand, the BJP had won 31 out of the 56 seats in 2009 polls. Gains are unlikely in the faction ridden Karnataka and in Jharkhand, where the BJP swept Lok Sabha polls in 2009. In Assam, the anti-Congress sentiment may be muted due to the support of large illegal migrant Muslim population. Similarly, in Bihar, where the NDA won 32 of the 40 seats in 2009 polls, there is not much scope for improvement. Moreover, Congress has little to lose in Bihar.
Importance of Leadership
Given the above scenario, how can the BJP benefit from anti-Congress vote? In my assessment, it is possible only if the BJP projects a popular leader whose appeal transcends state boundaries. A popular leader would give the BJP’s campaign a nationwide momentum and help it make substantial gains even in non-BJP strongholds.
Every time in the past anti-Congress sentiment swept the country, a popular leader arose galvanizing the country’s mood against the unpopular Congress regime and bringing to power an alternative. V.P. Singh emerged as the rallying point against the Congress in 1989 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996, 1998 and 1999. They conquered states and regions which were considered Congress bastions and where the ‘Grand Old Party’ was forced to bite the dust.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is by far the most popular leader in the country today. All the media polls show that Modi is the most preferred prime ministerial choice of the people. In the Star (ABP) News poll carried out across the country and released just last week, asked to name the best leader in the country, Narendra Modi emerged on the top with 17% support leaving the Gandhis far behind. Significantly, 25% in the South named Narendra Modi as the best leader against 11% for Rahul Gandhi, 10% for Sonia Gandhi and 12% for Manmohan Singh.
These polls show that Narendra Modi as the BJP’s mascot has the ability to expand the BJP’s appeal and vote base all over the country, much like Vajpayee did in the 1990s. Foremost, in my assessment, Narendra Modi as the leader of the BJP would deliver huge gains to it in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh. He would help the BJP cross a threshold level of vote share to start winning seats in states like Orissa and Haryana and improve vote share substantially in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal to make it an attractive pre-poll alliance partner.
The number of BJP allies grew between 1996 and 1999 principally because regional parties saw an accretion in their strength owing to the incremental vote that Vajpayee had delivered to them. The same would work for the BJP with Narendra Modi at the helm.
Merely banking on the Congress party’s sliding popularity may take the BJP only half the distance in its run for power. Projecting charismatic leadership is essential to bring the party to power at the Centre. Else, it may have to be content to jockey for some relevance in a post poll scenario to bring a motley third front coalition to power.