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Will India's Election be Centered on 30-50 Seats?

Hitting Mr. Modi Where It Hurts

by PRAFUL BIDWAI

Over the past month, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal did something no other leader has so far done to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial nominee Narendra Modi. He embarked on an “inspection tour” of Gujarat, talked to hundreds of ordinary people about their experience of the state’s hyped-up “development record”, and confronted Mr Modi with more than a dozen questions ranging from corruption and sweetheart deals with Big Business, to starvation-level wages for workers, closure of small-scale industries and suicides by 800 farmers.

Mr Kejriwal punctured Mr Modi’s bloated image, and exposed him as a corrupt, venal and cynical politician—a crony capitalist and “a property dealer”, who grabs land from poor farmers and gives it to the Ambanis, Tatas and the Gautam Adani group at throwaway prices. He highlighted the rampant corruption, rising unemployment, appalling state of government schools and crippling power shortages prevalent in Gujarat.

Mr Kejriwal continued his broadside against the Krishna-Godavari (KG) gas deal, on which Mr Mukesh Ambani is highly vulnerable, and also asked how Mr Adani could dramatically multiply his wealth 12-fold during Mr Modi’s tenure, bypassing environmental, industrial and labour regulations. He accused Mr Modi of transferring a free public hospital built after the 2001 Kutch earthquake to the Adani group, which has now become a corporate for-profit business enterprise.

AAP hit Mr Modi hard where it hurts—big-time corporate cronyism and corruption. The audacity of Mr Kejriwal’s attack left the BJP speechless—the more so because he and other AAP leaders have recently declared communalism a “greater danger” than corruption.

True, AAP is still not zeroing on the 2002 pogrom as a pivotal issue, nor questioning the temporary, reversible, dubious respite (wrongly called “clean chit”) Mr Modi got from a Gujarat court in the Zakia Jafri case. But nor is any other party, including the Congress.

Truth to tell, no other party has assailed Big Business and its capture of the political system like AAP. In the recent past, only the Left parties (notably, CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta) exposed the collusive KG gas-pricing arrangement, but they did so within a limited Parliamentary framework. AAP is making an issue of it on a broader terrain as part of a sustained anti-Modi campaign.

This signifies a major shift in AAP’s strategy. It’s no longer solely targeting the Congress and United Progressive Alliance, as it did for long months. It recognises that the main attack must be directed against Mr Modi because the UPA is on the run. This hopefully marks a departure from the trajectory that India’s anti-corruption movements have followed since the 1970s, when they aligned with the Hindu Right against the Congress.

If Mr Kejriwal sustains his anti-Modi campaign, bases it on solid factual evidence (plenty of which is available), focuses it sharply on the absence of rule of law under Mr Modi, and his systematic undermining and corruption of institutions in Gujarat, including the judiciary, Lok Pal and police, he will inflict far more damage on the BJP than AAP’s electoral victories possibly can.

One must hope that Mr Kejriwal will contest against Mr Modi in Varanasi. Yet, AAP’s real value must be measured not by the number of Lok Sabha seats it wins in the election—which may not exceed 10 or 15—and not even by the number of votes it takes from the BJP, but by its ability to deflate Mr Modi’s superhuman “56-inch chest” image and the charisma so assiduously manufactured around him by the corporate-controlled media.

Mr Kejriwal has a lot to contribute to such image deflation, and carries more credibility than any other leader/party. That’s why he must be careful not to make reckless statements against the entire media, accusing it if being funded by Big Business, and threatening to put journalists in jail. Such intemperate statements can only antagonise honest professional journalists and potential supporters.

As this Column has recently argued, AAP has its limitations and flaws, including a summary rejection of ideology, lack of emphasis on secularism/communalism, poverty, inequality and gender justice, and absence of a larger framework/vision from which to derive discrete positions.

Yet, AAP is a product of specific social circumstances and a political conjuncture marked by a long-term decline of the Congress and the non-emergence of a credible Centrist or Left-leaning alternative to it. AAP cannot be wished away. Nor should its potential capacity to evolve into a progressive Left-of-Centre force be dismissed—despite its obsession with morality and corruption.

AAP can bring about a major shift in the outcome of the coming election precisely because of its audacity to take on giant corporations and to target Mr Modi as their chosen representative.

The election is extremely delicately poised: just 30 to 50 (perhaps 40) seats can make a dramatic difference, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but also in some other balancing states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Karnataka and Orissa.

Although the BJP appears on media accounts set to emerge as the largest single party, nobody expects it to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats (272). If it can be stopped at 160-170 seats, Mr Modi will probably be unable to lead the new government. Many potential allies will find him too polarising, and would prefer another leader—even if that means forming a minority government.

But if the BJP reaches the 190-210 mark, Mr Modi could stitch together a bare majority with other parties joining the National Democratic Alliance, including the AIADMK, Telugu Desam (why, even the Telangana Rashtra Samithi or the YSR Congress), and a few other rag-tag groups. It’s not inconceivable that Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena or the Biju Janata Dal could lend an NDA government “outside” support, even if it doesn’t last long.

Regrettably, the BJP’s traditional opponents aren’t well placed to break its momentum. The Congress is not putting up a spirited fight. Some of its senior leaders like Manish Tiwari aren’t even willing to contest. The party is in a grim leadership crisis. Sonia Gandhi is withdrawing from active leadership but her son is unable to replace her; he has neither strategy nor dynamism.

The BJP’s principal opponents in the Cow Belt—Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, and Janata Dal(United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar—are not in good health for a variety of reasons. Their old social bases have become shaky. They are plagued by dissensions, factionalism and the “dynasty disease” (especially the RJD). All of them lack imaginative policies or programmes.

The SP is danger of losing at least some of its Muslim support because of the Muzaffarnagar riots. The BSP is unable to extend its base beyond the Jatav Dalits, themselves restive. The JD(U) is on the defensive as the upper castes move away after its split with the BJP. The RJD’s revival after Laloo Prasad’s release from jail is jeopardised by splits and internal strife. Ram Bilas Paswan’s defection to the NDA camp is a setback to the RJD-Congress coalition.

More important, the deeper social processes that threw up and sustained these parties—including Dalit aspirations for self-representation, and the Forward March of the Backwards—seem to have all but run out of steam. These parties can longer deliver on their constituents’ demands or generate new energies to trigger an emancipatory social mobilisation. They aren’t fighting the BJP ideologically.

The Left parties, a bulwark against communalism and an icon of progressive radicalism, are in poor shape. Traditionally, their electoral politics was based on, and followed, grassroots people’s mobilisations. Now they are groping for an electoral strategy detached from popular mobilisation.

Their attempt to put together an 11-party non-Congress-non-BJP national front has come a cropper, with the AIADMK, BJD and SP walking out. Former CPI general secretary AB Bardhan terms this front a “big mistake”. The Left’s 2009 tally of 24 seats in the Lok Sabha is forecast to fall. With the AIADMK suddenly terminating its alliance, the Left may not win the two seats it bagged from Tamil Nadu. The CPI may lose its sole seat from Odisha too.

The Left faces trouble in its major home states too. Having fared badly in West Bengal in the 2009 Lok Sabha election (down from 35 of 42 seats to just 15), and been routed in the 2011 Assembly election (down from 235 of 294 to just 62 seats) and the panchayat and municipal polls since, it’s desperately turning to “identity politics”.

The Communist Party-Marxist (CPM), singed by the departure of its “Muslim face” and one of its ablest leaders, Abdul Rezzaq Mollah, is fielding an unprecedented 10 Muslims (of its 32 candidates). But it has no credible strategy to challenge Mamata Banerjee.

In Kerala, the CPM snatched away the Kollam seat promised to the RSP, which walked out of the Left Democratic Front after 35 years. Worse, a diffident CPM is backing as many as five “independent” candidates, four of them Christians, instead of putting up its own members. This doesn’t exude much hope.

Praful Bidwai is a columnist for the Hindustan Times.