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The issue of secularism has been debated ad nauseam. There are those who wear their secularism on their sleeve. Some call themselves ‘secular fundamentalists’. It is the ultimate one can achieve in the ‘discipline of secularism’, a Ph. D. degree granted by the ‘University of Secularism’.
Even so a naïve a politician as Chiranjivi claimed his short-lived Praja Rajyam was a secular party. It is no disrespect to Chiranjivi, the man or the film-actor to say that he was politically naïve. It is because during his stint as head of his short-lived political party he exuded no leadership nor expounded on his socio-economic philosophy, if he had any. He jumped into the political fray because his numerically considerable social formation (for some inexplicable reason the word caste is taboo in the vernacular discourse!) egged on him to do so as it wished to wield power through him. And why not? If the Reddys have wielded power for long and the Kamms did so for a while in Andhra Pradesh, why should theKapus who form the third largest social formation not do so? Chiranjivi attracted leaders from the left and the right, but the ideologically-fired leaders who flocked to him soon found out that his vaunted idealism was a chimera. They deserted him when they realised that far from any ideology, it was Chiranjivi’s family members who called the shots in the party.
Every Ramadan season, Naidu may be seen hosting an Iftar dinner playing the gracious host, complete with skull cap. Why does a Hindu who has no qualms about going against the grain of his own religion, be so eager to be demonstrative of the practices of another religion? It may be a contradiction in terms but it precisely defines the nature of Indiansecularism: the calculus of electoral politics.
Even a term in political wilderness does things to politicians. Two terms is one too many. A prisoner who undergoes a long prison term is not the same person when he comes out. The long stint in prison does something to the psyche. Similarly the psyche of a politician who is in political wilderness for long also undergoes psychological change. The politician is not the same person as before. It is all the more difficult for a politician who had wielded power before. The hunger for power is such that, cherished principles would appear as impediments. After two terms out of power this was what happened to Naidu. First, he forgot the raison d’etre of his party. His father-in-law, the late N. T. Rama Rao founded it on the plank of Telugu pride in contradistinction to the Congress which he said had ‘sold the self-respect of the Telugu people in the streets of Delhi’. Second, Naidu forgot that in 1999 when he had sought re-election, it was his alliance with the BJP-led NDA that saw him coast to victory. One should remember that at the time Naidu had not yet demonstrated his administrative skills, for he was in power for too short a period. On the other hand, he had to fight the stigma ‘of stabbing his father-in-law in the back’ for usurping power. He now attributes his loss in 2004 to his alliance with the NDA. He lost in 2009 too although he did not have an explicit alliance with the NDA. If he refuses to align with it in 2014 as he steadfastly refuses to do - as of now – he would be willy-nilly handing victory to the Congress.
In 2004, the NDA lost due to a number of factors, one of which could be the communal stigma attached to it after Gujarat 2002. Or it could be because of the perceived insensitivity of the ‘India shining’ campaign. In either case the margin of difference between the Congress and the BJP, leaders of the two formations was just 7 seats. It is true theCongress improved its tally to cross the 200 mark in 2009. Congress’ stunning performance could be at least in part due to Naidu’s inability to regain lost ground. Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy repeated his 2004 performance of sending 33 MPs to the Lok Sbaha.
It was not the perceived communalism of the NDA that was Naidu’s undoing in 2004 but another kind of leadership offered by his bete noir YSR. YSR offered a sop for every numerically strong group of supporters in the state. His profligacy depleted the state’s coffers but it was his hapless successors that were left holding the baby. Another factor that some analysts believe has gone against Chandrababu Naidu was his attempt to discipline the state’s 9,46,000 government employees (see AP Factfile - Employee Census), who with their families formed a formidable block that voted against his party.
The elusive third front is of course every non-Congress, non-BJP politician’s dream. Who knows ‘he / she’ might be the ‘chosen monkey that arbiters between the two cats’? In the absence of such a possibility, Naidu cannot but support BJP for no other reason than his political survival. He simply cannot allow a Congress government to come back to power.The shrewd Naidu is not unaware of these facts in spite of his ‘secular’ posturing for public consumption. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, both the DMK and the AIADMK have done business with the BJP-led NDA in the past. For them their state’s interest comes first; ‘secularism’ is a slogan.
As in Andhra Pradesh (whether it goes to the hustings as one state or two is anybody’s guess), in Maharashtra too a change of guard could be expected after two successive terms of the Congress-led coalition and all the scams and sandals that riddled it. That brings us to the three large states (those excepting the BJP-ruled states like Chattishgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh), with large Muslim populations. They are Bengal (why do we persist with ‘West’ when there is only one Bengal in India?), Bihar and UP. BJP does not have a presence in Bengal nor does it expect to significantly improve it in the immediate future. In UP, the BJP may not have done well in the recent assembly polls but is likely to make significant gains in the national election. For one thing, electorates are generally able to discern between state and national elections. Second, with both the SP and the BSP having pandered to ‘minority vote-banks’ (for far too long), it may not be unreasonable to expect a Hindu backlash.
The same dynamics that apply to Chandrababu Naidu apply to Nitish Kumar too. He might do all the huffing and hawing but in the end, will not be able to do business with the Congress for fear of erosion of his vote bank; the target vote-bank being the same for both the parties. In the case of Mamata Banerjee, she has to contend with two enemies at the state level: the Communists and the Congress. If she leaves her flank unguarded, either of them might usurp her electoral space.
That brings us to the question as to who would lead the NDA. It would be naive to expect the dominant party in a coalition would allow a smaller partner to head the government, irrespective of whether or not Nitish Kumar harbours any such ambitions. If the BJP will be able to retain its current tally and make incremental gains in states like Maharashtra and UP as it most likely will, and acquire a critical mass of about 200 seats then the allies may not be in a position to dictate who its leader should be.
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