MARGARET Thatcher, who led Britain's Conservatives from confusion into the promised land of three election victories, believed that a political party must serve as a vehicle to capture power, not limp along as a platform for views. Ideas were a mirage unless anchored in the oasis of government.
The BJP is in search of its Thatcher. Transformative change often needs the gloom of a crisis. There are two models for revitalisation. In 1969, Mrs. Indira Gandhi split Congress because it had become a hippopotamus, wallowing in its own quagmire. Thatcher, straddling the same span between collapse and opportunity in 1975, did not wield an axe because she was confident that her party could accommodate the past without sacrificing the future. Both Ms. Gandhi and Thatcher were called divisive, but they understood that they had to be on the positive side of the dividing line. They had to offer solutions to a despairing electorate.
It has taken about a quarter century for a generational challenge within BJP to rise from simmer to surge. The party became a credible force in 1989, when it won 85 Lok Sabha seats. Under AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, BJP climbed to 180 MPs and deftly crafted the NDA to fashion a stable alliance. But questions inevitably arise during the forlorn years of defeat, when fusion unravels into confusion.
Alliance politics also has two models, informal and formal. Ms. Gandhi launched coalition culture in Delhi with a breathtaking swivel in 1969. She grasped the hand of Marxists who had been imprisoned by her father Jawaharlal Nehru for suspected sedition just seven years before, during the epochal war with China. But she would not let them into her Cabinet. Narasimha Rao survived through informal relationships. Atal Behari Vajpayee preferred formal partners. UPA has managed a decade-long coalition with both formal and informal allies.
There is nothing sentimental about power. Ms. Indira Gandhi kept the Left onside only as long as she needed them, for either domestic or foreign policy. (The Left was very helpful in forging her alliance with the Soviet Union before the Bangladesh war.) Smaller parties have drawn their own lessons. The principal one is unsurprising. They can maximise their benefits only when a Congress or BJP is vulnerable enough to listen, but not weak enough to die.
The present impasse is more complex. Both government and opposition have disappeared, the first replaced by aggressive paralysis, the second by rampant turmoil. A Congress that cannot pass an ordinance on food security is a passenger stranded on a platform long after the train has passed. A BJP torn by internal and external dissent is a train that has not left the station.
History is never so silly as to repeat itself, but there are echoes. We are in a phase similar to Rao's last year in office. Both Congress and BJP seem as friendless now as they did nearly twenty years ago. When circumstances become so fluid, small parties test how far they can swim, and look for a port only after having measured their strength. Ambitions rise, for they know coalitions will emerge after elections, not before. Both NDA and UPA were post-election formations. For every Deve Gowda waiting for an astrologer's prediction to come true, there are three Gowda advisers waiting to become finance minister of India. The pressure to buy a lottery ticket becomes huge.
Politics becomes a siren. Ideology is tailored to opportunity. The BJP-Janata Dal (U) marriage developed eczema long before divorce, but convenience camouflaged differences. Nitish Kumar wed BJP when the Ram temple was at the top of BJP's agenda, and remained in Vajpayee's Cabinet after the Gujarat riots because he needed BJP's help to become chief minister of Bihar. And BJP had no problems in Bihar with what it described as “minority appeasement” elsewhere.
The casino is being cleared once again. Old bets are off. But politicians can only come to a new table with chips loaned by familiar vote banks.
Alas, if you depend too much on past arithmetic, you could miss emerging algebra. Politics as usual is insufficient for an India in churn. Old constructs have weakened visibly. Marxists are no longer principal guardians of “Left-secularism;” for Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee will do very nicely instead. The Third Front is not what it was in 1996 and 1997, when it could elect a PM. It is a bargaining instrument to maximise the cash flow to Bengal, Bihar and Odissa as price of support to the next Union government.
Who will form it? Simple, again. Position play will surrender to numbers. When Vajpayee got 180 seats, the BJP did not look as saffron as it did when it had only 85 MPs. Which party will get the MPs? Whichever understands the mood of the moment. As another successful vote-winner, Bill Clinton, told his opponents on his way to the White House: It's the economics, stupid.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.