Choosing winnability as a factor for candidate selection in elections is seen as evidence of jettisoning principles over pragmatism. Every political party selected candidates on the basis of caste and community but this was not acknowledged. Instead, political leaders adopted a high moral ground and proclaimed adherence to ethical values and ideology. The BJP in 1989-91 was the first party to consecutively expand horizontally. Its key backroom experts legitimised the idea of winnability and declared selecting candidates solely on winning chances as a scrupulous yardstick.
In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the party was unsure when “outsiders” flocked to the party after spending a lifetime in other parties and in the “system”. Many of them were rewarded with party tickets, and this left many old-timers sore. They bemoaned the BJP had jettisoned ideological commitment and joined the rat race for political power. Yet the leadership counter-argued that being practical-minded was no evidence of being unprincipled. Leaders also explained that elections are fought not just with the purpose of winning but also to create confusion among adversaries and breaking their ranks was also an important part of electoral politics. Since then, the BJP has remorselessly induced leaders from other parties even when there was little probability of winning elections.
In the process, the party expanded into new areas outside its traditional sphere of influence, and continues to do so. Witness, for instance, the BJP’s tactic even in a state like Tripura, a Left bastion for several decades, where the party is preparing to roll out the red carpet for legislators and leaders from other parties once the presidential polls are over. The BJP knows that not all who cross over are ideological or moral assets, yet they are accepted simply because it weakens the Opposition. While every party indulges in such tactics, the BJP is the only one, barring a few regional outfits, that is unabashed about it. It has to be credited with the way its leaders approach every election as a furious battle in the long-term war it is waging.
For the Opposition, the only way to counter such aggression is by using the same tactic. Sadly, three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, the Opposition led by the Congress remains clueless about tactics that may cause unease in the BJP and force faultlines between the BJP and its several allies and coalition partners into the open. In the last three years, the BJP’s allies have not made a secret of their claustrophobia but have remained with the ruling party because of the absence of any alternative or option. The Opposition, mainly the Congress, has lost an opportunity to politically embarrass the BJP in the presidential and vice-presidential elections. Not only has the Congress failed in creating confusion within the NDA ranks, but it also unnecessarily precipitated a division within its own ranks when the Janata Dal (United) broke ranks and supported NDA’s presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind.
Take the most recent decision of fielding Gopalkrishna Gandhi as the vice-presidential candidate. However, great Mr Gandhi’s achievements and erudition may be, the fact is that given the BJP’s strength in the electoral college, Mr Gandhi can at best put up a symbolic fight. Moreover, given his anti-BJP posture in the past, the party will not hesitate for a moment to oppose him virulently and put up a candidate of its choice. Mr Gandhi has obviously been chosen because he is a model of secular values and because not supporting him would have been very difficult for Nitish Kumar and other Opposition stalwarts who may otherwise have gone along with the BJP’s choice.
But if the Congress had a long-term view of politics, it would have identified a person who was not a supporter of the BJP and was broadly a secularist but was not known for grandstanding against the Hindutva brigade. There are several able people in the county who while not being supportive of the BJP are also not identified as its bitter critics. A milder person in place of an ardent Mr Gandhi would have been a better choice. The search should have been for an eminent person known for being a political non-partisan yet whose commitment to the Constitution and secular values was not in doubt. It would have been very difficult for Mr Modi to oppose such a person, just like the Congress had been stumped into accepting A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose choice in 2002 reflected his capacity for out-of-the-box thinking, the Opposition’s choice for the vice-president demonstrates that the Congress remains linear in its thinking and its leaders are not innovative enough to stump Mr Modi and his aides.
Even in the case of the presidential polls, the decision to nominate Meira Kumar was reactive and taken with the purpose of creating awkwardness for the Bihar chief minister. But the purpose of the presidential poll was not to embarrass Mr Kumar. Instead, the Congress should have taken the initiative and named a candidate who would have been difficult to oppose for Mr Modi. Why did the Congress not make a case for a dalit President even before the BJP made its move, and found a candidate who the BJP could not have opposed? Why was the Congress not guided by the objective of creating confusion within the NDA and named a candidate who would have been acceptable to parties that eventually sided with the BJP on Mr Kovind? Throughout the presidential and vice-presidential polls, the Congress has been conspicuous by its passivity. Instead of seizing the initiative and creating a piquant situation for the BJP, it has added to its own problems. An opportunity has been frittered and Mr Modi will have the last laugh. In the victory of a candidate not from their own stable, the Congress could have serenaded at the BJP’s loss.