By Subhabrata Guha
India seems to be in a frenzy over the high-pitched campaign of Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, after his public denouncement of an Ordinance and the PM, Rahul Gandhi has been catapulted to lead the Congress campaign. But it is worthwhile to ask whether Indians have a choice beyond the Congress and the BJP.
It is assumed that India is heading for bipolar politics. But, interestingly, 52% of Indians who voted in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections didn’t cast their votes either for the Congress or the BJP. More than 220 members of the present Lok Sabha do not belong to either of the two parties.
In the 2009 polls, the Congress got 119 million votes, BJP 78 million, BSP 26 million and the CPM 22 million. No single political party got 120 million votes in the 2009 elections. But remember, around 120 million Indians will be casting their vote for the first time in the coming elections in 2014.
So, the question is: do voters have a choice beyond the “secular” Congress and “communal” BJP? Going by the mood of the nation – be it public anger due to large-scale corruption, the dilemma of corporate houses and policymakers over the current slowdown or the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar – it is likely many people will resort to negative voting.
To put it in perspective, voters will either elect or discard one party in order to find an alternative. If public opinion against the Congress is due to corruption, inflation and job losses, the BJP will find it difficult to come out of its “communal” tag, especially after the elevation of Modi, accused of engineering one of the worst riots in independent India. The Gujarat killings in 2002 were by far the most extensive and brutal in the new millennium.
But are these two parties as different as they are perceived to be?
When it comes to economic policies, both parties are pro-market, pro-FDI and pro-privatisation. It is no coincidence that both parties come to a common platform when it comes to key economic reforms. For example, the BJP didn’t hesitate to back the Congress-led government for the passage of the Pension Bill in Parliament. Both are equally uncomfortable with the idea of formulating laws against hoarding by traders.
If the Congress is blamed for rampant corruption in the country, the BJP is also not far behind. Look at how the BJP is wooing its poster-boy in the South, BS Yedyurappa, who has been accused of large-scale corruption, back to the party. Not to forget the sensational images of then-BJP boss Bangaru Laxman taking a wad of banknotes as a bribe.
Is the Congress a viable alternative to the BJP when it comes to communalism? The track record of the Congress doesn’t say so. In fact, unlike the BJP, the Congress is “secular” in choosing between different brands of communal politics – it can play the Hindu card (Babri Masjid case) as well as the Muslim card (the Shah Bano case) or the Bhindranwale card in Punjab or the Christian card in Kerala to drive home its point of view.
But there’s a third side to the story.
The two most communally sensitive states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have not seen any major communal flare-ups, barring the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, in the last two decades. Neither the BJP nor the Congress has been in power in either state in this period. Both states are ruled by regional parties.
There has been no communal tension in Tamil Nadu where the Congress has not been in power since 1967. In Bengal, the Congress has been out of power since 1977 and there has not been major communal tension.
There have been nearly 1,000 communal incidents across the country in the last eight years, according to data collected from the answers of the home minister in response to questions on communal incidents in the country. More than half of these incidents took place in five states: Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala. All are either ruled by the Congress or the BJP. Only Kerala has a Left coalition alternating with a Congress one.
Interestingly, several Indian states have chosen alternatives other than the Congress and the BJP. When will the urban middle class realise that there is a choice beyond the Congress and the BJP or Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi?