At yearend, Congress has the edge

Even as the Manmohan Singh government's woes continued with what was called the coal scam hitting the headlines in the earlier part of 2012 and the horrendous gang rape of a young woman tarnishing its reputation as the year drew to a close, its political position was generally more secure than what might have been expected.

As much was evident from the Congress' recent victory in the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections and earlier in Uttarakhand. And, although it suffered the anticipated defeat at Narendra Modi's hands in Gujarat, the marginal fall in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP's) tally of seats and voting percentage suggested that the latter's influence might be tapering off.

Arguably, the Congress' victories in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have stalled, if not reversed, the slide it experienced earlier when it lost in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa. The scene for the party at the time could not have been gloomier with the BJP directly targeting the prime minister on the coal scam. While the Congress was being battered and bruised in Delhi, an outbreak of violence in distant Assam between the tribal Bodos and Muslim settlers from Bangladesh refocussed attention on the unresolved problem of migration in the region.

However, if the outlook for the Congress has improved, even if marginally, the reason is the failure of its opponents to mount a sustained campaign against it. Considering how the BJP's insistence on the prime minister's resignation on the coal scam led to the washing out of the entire monsoon session of parliament, it can seem odd how quickly the issue has vanished from the public eye. Evidently, the BJP's all-or-nothing approach sucked the life out of it when the government ignored its demand.

The BJP has experienced other failures, too, to enable the Congress breathe a sigh of relief. The biggest of them is in Karnataka where the party has split with the scam-tainted former chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, forming his own outfit. The fanfare, therefore, with which the BJP had celebrated its entry into southern India has died with a whimper. The party is still in office, of course, in Bangalore. But the Congress and its ally, the Janata Dal-Secular, can hope to claw their way back to power.

But, ironically, the BJP's biggest problem relates not to failures, but to a success. For all the hype which accompanied Modi's victory in Gujarat, there is a perceptible uneasiness about what it portends for the party. It isn't only Modi's prime ministerial ambitions which have thrown a spanner in the hopes of other aspirants like the never-say-die octogenarian L.K. Advani, the eloquent (in Hindi) Sushma Swaraj and the favourite of English TV channels, Arun Jaitley. What is disconcerting for the BJP is the fact that the fulfilment of Modi's dreams will entail the demise of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

This possibility was highlighted yet again by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's conspicuous absence from Modi's swearing-in ceremony where the BJP's allies like Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK and the two estranged cousins, Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, were present. However, their combined presence could not compensate for the dark shadow cast by Nitish Kumar's absence since his party, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), is the NDA's only "secular" component. A rift between the BJP and the JD-U will mean handing over the Hindi heartland state of Bihar to the Congress and its ally, Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) - unless the JD-U joins hands with the Congress for a share in power in Bihar and at the centre.

The BJP is not the only adversary of the Congress which seems unable to get its act together. Another group comprising, among others, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who had considerably rattled the Congress with their anti-corruption campaign, has since fallen apart with mentor Anna and disciple Kejriwal going their separate ways. Not only that, the mentor has even accused the disciple of being "power hungry" presumably because the latter has deviated from Anna's tactical line by forming a political party.

But, even if these civil activists and fledgling politicians have failed to set the Yamuna on fire, the fact that the path of civil resistance which they showed to the younger generation belonging mainly to the urban middle class has proved to be a useful tool in their hands. Its efficacy can be seen in the demonstrations organised by these unorganised groups in protest against the government's customarily apathetic response to the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi.

What is noteworthy about these groups is that they are invariably well-turned-out and usually speak in English. The obvious disconnect between these English-speaking 'inquilabis' (revolutionaries) and the political establishment must be of considerable concern to the latter for, while the recognised political parties have failed to exploit the prevalent discontent, these young men and women have been able to do so.

And the reason why they have been able tap into the discontent is the government's seemingly uncaring nature. Cocooned in a life of power and privilege, and harbouring criminal elements in its ranks (one-fourth of the MPs have a criminal background), nothing appears to shake the government's smug complacency more than the street demonstrations by idealistic young people.

The government still seems to have the edge where a straight fight with its political opponents is concerned. But no one knows what the effect of the challenge posed by these unorganised groups will be on the electoral outcome, especially because they clearly regard the entire political class with disdain. The election where the impact of this "X" factor will probably be felt first will be for the Delhi assembly in 2013.

(29-12-2012-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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