Since the UPA government took office in May 2004, it has suffered a series of electoral defeats and has not gained any of the big states, barring Haryana (which happened in early 2005). It has suffered 16 election defeats in the past four years, and in many of the states, the defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory as in the case of Karnataka and Gujarat.
In both these states, the party lost out due to passive campaigning techniques and the lack of a leader. It lost Punjab and Uttarakhand due to price rise and other local level issues. The same thing happened in Himachal Pradesh. But, the fundamental question one cannot help but ask is about the position of the BJP in the local and national political scene. Will the party stage a comeback in 2009 and more importantly, is it ready to take charge?
It must be worth noting that since the BJP government was formed in 1998 and later in 1999, they too like the current government never tasted victory in any of the state elections. In 1998, they lost Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi and defeats followed in Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka. Gujarat was the only exception and one cannot but wonder what their positions would have been, had the elections been held in a completely different atmosphere in 2003 (as was the initial plan). Another state in which they maintained a steady graph was Jharkhand. It was only in December 2003 that the party finally won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh – and the same is expected to happen to the UPA later this year. Hence, the parallels run deep as far as the party ruling and the state elections are concerned. One cannot forget the Chief Ministers conclaves that Sonia Gandhi had called which were attended by 16 CMs. Compare this with the handful Congress Chief Ministers today, many of them being from the North-East. In December, it is anticipated that the INC will gain three more Chief Ministers at the expense of the BJP. Only Delhi will be bagged by the saffron party, the pollsters suggest.
Hence, it is very difficult to predict the prospects of both the Congress and more importantly the BJP in 2009 or later this year. For the BJP, the picture looks very good nationally but the regional picture projects a completely different scenario. For one, the party can go nowhere but down in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh which give it 57 out of the 140 odd MPs it has in the Lok Sabha currently. There is no way it can repeat the magic of 2004 in these states. The party will marginally improve its standing in Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and even Delhi and will have big gains in Gujarat, but this is not enough for 200 seats. It is in a sticky position in Karnataka and in Uttar Pradesh (it should celebrate if it manages even five seats from these two states). This is where the allies come in and the picture is not very good here either. The BJP has to defend anti-incumbency both at the central and state levels and will lose out. It has no allies in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or West Bengal and the Shiv Sena’s performance is a mystery till the very end. Barring the JD[U], all allies may let them down. Compare this to the Congress which shall gain in the heartland in Kerala. The only ray of hope is that, perhaps the UPA allies will not be able to manage decent seats. The Left is sure to lose, and this is where the Third Front or the UNPA comes in – that is if they manage to remain non-aligned.
This brings us to the next question: is the BJP prepared to take power? In theory yes, any party that gets the mandate can take power, but then, is the metamorphosis of LK Advani complete? Is he prepared to dawn the mantle of the supreme leader, a position he has always seen Vajpayee occupy? He is challenged by a hard-line Sangh and a hardliner Rajnath Singh, who is involved in a constant tug-of-war with Advani over the leadership of the party. Life has indeed come full circle for him from being the original poster boy of the RSS-VHP to now being on their hit list. In the past few years, he has tried to project himself as a moderate leader who seeks to accommodate rather than to divide. What he and Rajnath Singh do today is exactly what Vajpayee and Advani did in the yesteryears when the BJP was inching towards being a national party. This time round, even the cabinet would have a different look.
Will George Fernandes accept a ministry? Who will be the Home Minister? Who will handle Finance? Will Advani retain the External Affairs ministry? All this only time can tell, but Advani needs to work very hard if he does not want to be called the ‘second best’ Prime Minister that India never had after Sardar Patel…