The political outcomes of 2017 will shape the politics of the next decade. Two key elections to state assemblies will bookend all others-Uttar Pradesh in spring and Gujarat in winter. A bad outcome for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in UP would mean a summer of political discontent which could stretch into the monsoon months, dampening economic sentiment and sharpening political divides. On the other hand, a happy outcome for the BJP in the state could see the Congress party melt further in the heat of increased internal frustration born out of the party’s Hamletian dilemma-to be or not to be under Rahul Gandhi‘s leadership.
Consider the alternative scenarios. Scenario 1 would see the BJP emerging as the single-largest party in Uttar Pradesh, perhaps even with an absolute majority. Some UP-watchers suggest that the BJP could have secured that outcome in the aftermath of the ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan but that demonetisation has eaten into that support base. As the single-largest party, with or without absolute majority, the BJP could form a government. While the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) will lick their wounds, the ‘Sonia Congress’, so to speak, would enter a phase of intense soul-searching and hand-wringing, followed by more exits of provincial leaders from the party across the country. It is unlikely that anyone would actually seek a change of leadership. This is the best-case scenario for the BJP.
Scenario 2 would see a hung assembly in UP with either the BSP or SP emerging as the single-largest party, and Congress not having the numbers to back a non-BJP government, forcing the BSP/SP to form a government with implicit support of the BJP. The BJP’s aim in supporting such a government would be to keep the non-Congress opposition divided so that a decline in the party vote would not result in the emergence of a ‘Third Front’. This is a second-best outcome for the BJP.
Scenario 3 would see the BJP performing badly, perhaps miserably, and a non-BJP government taking office in Lucknow. If the BSP or the SP secure an absolute majority, a stable government would be formed. If not, the Congress could stabilise a minority government. This is the worst outcome for the BJP, and the best one for the Congress.
Towards securing such an outcome in which it emerges ahead of rivals, the SP has devised an interesting strategy-the father has allowed the son to project himself as a rebel. This was precisely what Rahul Gandhi tried in 2013 when he tore up an ordinance issued by the Manmohan Singh government-to be the insider-outsider. The incumbent rebel, diverting all the anger against the establishment towards an older generation and painting himself in heroic colours as a Mr Clean. Will Akhilesh Yadav succeed where Rahul Gandhi failed? So far, father Mulayam and uncle Shivpal have played this game more cleverly than mother Sonia and uncle Manmohan were able to.
Scenario 1 would mean the end of Rahul Gandhi’s hopes, a dampening of Third Front spirit and, most importantly, the beginning of a long reign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From a victory in UP, Mr Modi will lead his party to a victory in New Delhi and national politics will enter a new phase. That is not all. The Scenario 1 outcome will be the final turning point that the BJP has been waiting for in its quest to emerge as the natural and national party of governance, much like the Indian National Congress was during the Nehru-Gandhi era. With the decline of what political scientist Rajni Kothari famously dubbed the ‘Congress system’, the BJP has yearned to substitute it with its own ‘system’-defined by a new nationalist consciousness.
Scenario 3, on the other hand, would begin the process of consolidation of a new Third Front. This outcome is based on the assumption that the BJP would find it difficult to bounce back from a wounding defeat in UP and the Congress would finally come to terms with the growing irrelevance of the Nehru-Gandhis in national politics. The problem with the formation of such a front is that right now there are far too many aspirants for the top job-Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, K. Chandrasekhara Rao and, perhaps, even Mulayam Singh Yadav, if his health permits. Those who wish to form a Third Front will have toengineer political events thatwould throw up potential primeministerial leadership.
An interesting possibility that Scenario 3 throws up is one in which Sonia Gandhi invites all ex-Congress leaders to return to the parent family under a new leadership. Sharad Pawar may not bite that bait, but Mamata could, if she sees the possibility of herself emerging as the Congress’s preferred PM for a Third Front government formed with its support. A latter-day Deve Gowda, if you like. The problem with this is that if the Congress moves closer to Mamata Banerjee, the Left may move closer to its old Third Front friends like Mulayam and Chandrababu Naidu. An eventual three-cornered contest in 2019 could well ensure the victory of the BJP.
Scenario 3 would help Rahul Gandhi stabilise himself at the head of the Congress and begin the process of Mr Modi’s decline. The first halt after UP, under this scenario, would be Gujarat in December. An enthused Congress would try to unseat the BJP in Gujarat. If that were to happen, the national government in Delhi would enter exactly the same phase that the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government entered in 2012, with the emergence of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. Governance could go into a tailspin.
Scenario 2 is neither here nor there and would continue the current impasse in which the BJP, the Congress and a clutch of regional parties constantly jostle for political space seeking to generate political momentum in their favour in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, one important outcome of Scenario 2, in which neither the BJP nor the Congress would do well in UP and the regional parties secure a boost, is that an internal churn for change of leadership may well begin within the BJP.
A political party needs three attributes for electoral success-inspiring leadership, an active and dedicated cadre and a political platform that appeals to a core and loyal constituency. The BJP had all three in 2014. Even if the party leadership’s image is dented by five years of power, it still has a cadre and an agenda that appeals to its core. Many of the regional parties also have all three attributes. The Congress presently has none of the three.
Even if Rahul’s image is sought to be boosted through the media, and the party’s many bright sparks come up with an imaginative manifesto with a wide appeal, where is the cadre needed to convert support into votes? That has been the party’s biggest problem. Much of the focus has been on the weakness at the top. The real problem for the Congress is the disintegration of its bottom.
All this points to the national importance of the elections in UP. No one understands this better than the prime minister himself. His decision to use the demonetisation of high value currency notes as a political gambit in the run-up to the UP elections shows the importance he attaches to winning this battle. Make no mistake, it was a political move, even though it has kept so many economists busy! It remains to be seen if the expected political harvest can be reaped.
That both Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee are trying hard to emerge as the leaders of the anti-demonetisation campaign suggests that they understand the politics of the gambit and see an opportunity for their political consolidation. However, so far neither has struck a chord nationally. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Congress had to pull former prime minister Manmohan Singh out of the comfort of his retirement home to make that memorable speech in Parliament, deploying language uncharacteristic of the gentle sardar to grab national attention.
The politics of 2017 revolves around who benefits politically from the demonetisation campaign. That in turn would influence electoral outcomes in state assembly elections. The die for 2019 would then be cast.