India's ruling United Progressive Alliance is losing popularity by dithering on progressive measures like the land acquisition Bill, universal healthcare, and social security for unorganised workers. It has just passed a food security ordinance -- after greatly diluting the original universal food provision.
Some of these measures were promised in the Congress's 2004 manifesto. The unorganised sector commission report was ready in 2010. The food security Bill was listed in UPA-2's “first 100 days” agenda. But the UPA has been half-hearted about these pro-poor initiatives.
Equally glaring is its rightward economic lurch: more sweetheart deals for Big Business, relaxing the single-brand rule in foreign-investment retail, and raising foreign investment ceilings in defence production and the media.
Worse, it has doubled the price of Krishna-Godavari natural gas for Reliance Industries -- at the expense of power and fertiliser producers and consumers. It's claimed this will stimulate gas exploration, but experience suggests otherwise.
The government is pushing the shady Jet Airways-Etihad deal, with an unjustifiable tripling of Abu Dhabi seat quotas, which will hammer the last nail in Air-India's coffin.
Public-private partnership (PPP) projects worth a massive Rs.1.15 lakh crores are being hastily promoted, including 60 airports and unviable elevated-rail corridors. This is meant to signal “investor-friendliness” (read, private super-profits at public expense).
The government is also pushing through environmentally harmful projects, including hydropower dams of the kind that caused Uttarakhand's flood havoc.
This betrayal of the pro-aam aadmi growth promise will further dent the UPA's credibility, already damaged by corruption scandals, which led to the resignation of several cabinet ministers.
The UPA, deserted by the Trinamool Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, could pay a high electoral price for all this.
Ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with all its bluster, has failed to exploit the situation politically. It didn't even move a no-confidence motion against the UPA. It cannot rope in mid-sized players like Mulayam Singh or Mayawati because they loathe an early election.
More important, the BJP is itself in a mess because of Narendra Modi's aggressive entry into national politics as the BJP election committee's chief. This produced a near-cataclysm. L.K. Advani dramatically resigned from party positions -- only to back down after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh intervened, confirming its stranglehold on the BJP.
It's tempting to see this as an ignominious defeat of an old man unreconciled to the end of the BJP's Vajpayee-Advani era. But Mr. Advani succeeded on three counts. First, he infused contention and conflict into the BJP's decision to elevate Mr. Modi.
This highlighted Mr. Modi's polarising persona. Mr. Advani resigned not because he has turned secular -- he remains Hindutva-obsessed -- but because he distrusts Mr. Modi. Mr. Advani struck a chord with those who see Mr. Modi as an autocrat who doesn't respect the Sangh Parivar's discipline. Mr. Modi has reduced the Gujarat RSS to a non-entity, and may undermine the Parivar nationally for personal reasons.
Second, Mr. Advani articulated the ambitions of leaders who want a say in allotting election tickets. They include Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (who challenges Gujarat's “development” record), Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh, and Rajasthan ex-CM Vasundhara Raje.
Third, Mr Advani's stance precipitated the Janata Dal (United)'s departure from the National Democratic Alliance. The JD (U)'s Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has long opposed Mr. Modi, and cannot afford to lose his Muslim base, with its 17% vote-share in Bihar.
Even the Shiv Sena attacked Mr. Modi's revolting attempt to hog the Uttarakhand limelight by ludicrously claiming that he rescued 15,000 Gujarati pilgrims. The Sena is extremely wary of the BJP's attempts to woo the rival Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. It also carries an anti-“outsider” anti-Gujarati animus.
With the JD (U) gone, the NDA has lost its only avowedly secular, “social justice”-oriented, face. Barring the BJP, it is reduced to two religion-based parties. The NDA, in power in four states, is a pale shadow of itself. It once included 23 parties ruling in a dozen states.
Here is the greatest obstacle to Mr. Modi's Rambo-like prime ministerial bid. He personifies Neanderthal-style aggression. Yet he invokes Atal Behari Vajpayee's “soft” legacy and ability to carry along others. The two just don't go together. Mr. Modi's tall “development” claims, demolished by numerous analysts, stand rejected by the Planning Commission too.
Mr. Modi's attempt to build bridges with Muslims isn't working, witness the June 30 Gandhinagar fiasco. This was boycotted by most invited Muslim scholars. Former Sachar Committee official Syed Zafar Mahmood convincingly accused Mr. Modi of promoting anti-Muslim hatred.
Even more damaging is the CBI charge-sheet in the Ishrat Jehan case, which points to a cold-blooded “encounter killing” on Mr. Modi's watch. He cannot evade constructive responsibility for it.
The BJP can make a convincing bid for national power only if it wins about 180 Lok Sabha seats. To do this, it must raise its all-India vote-share from the present 19% to 24-25% -- an extra 25-30 million votes.
Mr. Modi will find it hard to do this with his “Gujarat model” of an already developed, highly urbanised state. Most electors don't know about it.
Consider the larger picture. The BJP is out of electoral reckoning in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu-Puducherry, Kerala and Karnataka, which count for 170 of 543 Lok Sabha seats. It's a small player in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (120 seats), which can deliver bulk votes. It cannot do well in the Hindi belt unless there's a Hindutva wave. That's non-existent.
The party is near saturation in its “base” states. In Chhattisgarh, it holds 10 of 11 seats. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, it can at best gain marginally. It only stands to make incremental gains in Rajasthan and Delhi.
A cohesive regional-party Third Front isn't emerging. A major Left bloc could give it direction. But if the Left only wins 30-odd seats, as seems likely, it won't be effective.
India could be headed for an unstable minority government dependent on uncertain “outside” support.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist. E-mail: email@example.com