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Why regional leaders will decide Delhi's rulers

By T V R Shenoy
March 09, 2009 17:55 IST
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The best summation of the Bharatiya Janata Party's electoral predicament may lie in Kipling's line, 'Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...'

Take a look at the map of littoral India and you can see what I mean.

Which are the states on the coastline? Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, and Kerala lie on the Arabian Sea; West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu are on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

The BJP, as matters stand today, does not have a single ally left in the states on the eastern seaboard. In fact, it is worse off today than it was five years ago, during the last general election. In 2004 the BJP was allied with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, with the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, and with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Today every single one of those parties has quit the National Democratic Alliance, leaving the BJP's electoral strategy in seeming shambles.

Take a look now at the states on the Arabian Sea. Gujarat and Karnataka actually have BJP governments, and it is a major party in Maharashtra and in Goa. Barring Kerala, the BJP has a good chance of winning several seats, a situation that is diametrically opposite from that on the eastern side.

I should point out that the principle of "never the twain shall meet" applies only to the BJP; the Congress is perfectly well represented on both coasts. It is either on the treasury benches or is the principal opposition party in almost all the states. (The situation is a bit more complex in West Bengal and in Tamil Nadu but that is broadly true for those states too.)

Where are the parties that were allied to the BJP in 2004? The Trinamool Congress is allied with the Congress. The Telugu Desam, the AIDMK, and the Biju Janata Dal are now allied with the CPI-M, possibly as part of a resurrected Third Front.

What this means is that the BJP has few or no chances of winning seats in a contiguous line of states running from West Bengal to Kerala. (Kerala has never seen a single MLA from the BJP leave alone winning a single Lok Sabha contest.) There are 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, 21 in Orissa, 42 in Andhra Pradesh, 39 in Tamil Nadu, and 20 in Kerala. You can add the single Lok Sabha constituency in Pondicherry, a Union territory rather than a state, to that list.

Does this mean that the BJP is essentially giving up chances in 165 seats? And if so, realistically, what are its chances of actually returning to power in Delhi?

The BJP will fool nobody if it insists that the defection of the BJD is not a blow. But politics, to quote Bismarck's dictum, is the art of the possible. And anything is possible after the election.

Take another look at the list of the parties which have dropped away from the National Democratic Alliance as it existed in 2004. The TDP and the BJD are regional parties first and foremost, and in their respective states their foe is the Congress.

Mamata Bannerjee has built a career around battling the Left Front in West Bengal; can she continue to support a Congress that is allied to the CPI-M in Delhi?

In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa has kept all her options open. She can align with either the BJP or the Congress -- as she has done in the past -- or continue with the Third Front. But anyone who does not join hands with the AIDMK is automatically ensured of the DMK's support.

The Congress cannot afford to take campaigning lightly in any state, whether on the east coast or the west. The BJP, assuming it takes a cold-blooded view, can concentrate all its efforts on its own strongholds. It can then sit back and wait for the logic of anti-Congress policies to dawn on the TDP and the BJD. (Or the logic of being anti-Left in the case of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.)

It is a bit of a sad commentary on our democracy but the general election is going to be only the first step in forming a government.

The second step will come only when the party leaders -- specifically from regional forces -- judge their positions after the polls.

Naveen Patnaik found it easy to twirl from right to left, from the BJP to the CPI-M, in a matter of days. Given such flexibility, our politicians might even try their best to prove that east and west can meet after all.

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T V R Shenoy