Two recent decisions by the Congress-led UPA government would have stumped the BJP. Apart from taking the wind out of their sails on the eve of a Parliament session, these decisions may force the BJP to take tactical steps to counter the rightward sway of the Congress. The decision of the Maharashtra government to accord a state funeral to Bal Thackeray and following it up quickly with the hanging of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab are two acts which could not have been bettered by the BJP.
What the BJP think-tank may be wondering now, is why is this Congress showing a decidedly right wing shift? It can only be a clearing of the rubble for the election mid-way next year. This Congress move consists of some decisions to satisfy the larger Hindu mainstream vote. The Congress did very well in all urban centres in the last elections and that could have come only with the Hindu vote which the party will want to preserve by all means.
Not very surprisingly these two acts, which can only bring cheer to the Hindu right wing, couldn’t have been accidental. For instance, there was no demand for a state funeral for Thackeray because some Shiv Sainiks would have preferred to wrap him in orange colours of the Shiv Sena rather than the tricolour, which has a Congress feel to it. Basically nationalism was not Thackeray’s forte.
His play was always on sub-nationalism and there was no shrill nationalistic calls emanating from Matoshree apart from when Pakistan- related matters were involved. Also, Thackeray supported the Congress candidate in the last two presidential elections bringing the NDA to a standstill. So the hanging of Kasab can also be seen as the Congress government’s farewell salute to Thackeray. He would no doubt have applauded the ruthless efficiency with which it was carried out.
These two very strong decisions tailor made to quench the right wing thirst are also Maharashtra-centric. In Maharashtra the Congress has always been a sort of shadow boxer for the Shiv Sena, never once bothering to initiate any criminal proceedings against the Sena chief. The basis for such a fundamental working arrangement was laid by VP Naik (and later Pawar and others) who used the Shiv Sena to send the Communists packing from Bombay and thus creating a huge political vacuum in the trade union scene into which freelance leaders like Datta Samant took over.
And again the decisions to do away with the problem called Kasab, was also initiated by an old war horse from Maharashtra , home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who broke all norms of accepted behaviour by gloating on TV, like a Tiger after its kill, that he did not even inform the PM. It is clear that Shinde did not know what happened prior to this as reports clearly indicate that the Congress core group calibrated the event.
Someone like Indira Gandhi would have put Shinde in his place for his statements, when any mature politician should have appealed for calm. But Shinde, though his constituency is different, knows how to ride such waves. But his child-like innocence in matters of state are clearly disturbing.
The playing to the right wing gallery is unlikely to extend to the hanging of Afzal Guru, since three Presidents have referred the matter back to the home ministry. Also the charge against Guru is only that of being a conspirator, and in the same case one of the accused has been acquitted and another accused, Shakaut Guru’s, term was reduced to ten years from a death sentence. There is no logic or any evidence for a hanging, and none of the 80 witnesses said Guru was part of any terrorist organisation. The judgement was also influenced by the national baying for blood, since Guru himself was acquitted of all charges under POTA. The fallout of hanging Guru in Kashmir will be something that the UPA will not be able to handle and will give back the electoral advantage to the BJP.
Politically, won’t a right wing posture distance the Muslim vote? In the case of Kasab hanging it will not, but if Guru too makes it to the gallows, then the feeling that in India the noose is reserved for Muslims may gather currency during frenzied election campaigning. But in this right wing mood the Congress may do anything.
The Kasab hanging will also have its fall-out in the Gujarat elections a few weeks from now, where Narendra Modi cannot take it easy at all due to the unknown Keshubhai factor. In 35 seats Modi’s majority is only around 3000 votes, which can be swung with nationalistic rhetoric. There will be large scale cross voting within the BJP in Gujarat, due to internal dissension as well. Dipping its fingers into this honeypot, the Congress will definitely ask for a vote for its action on Kasab in Gujarat , while Modi will not be even able to refer to the hanging that had the country gaping in disbelief and awe. For sheer managerial brilliance, there is nothing like a killing!
In case Congress does better in Gujarat, quite likely considering they already have 12 out of the 25 parliament seats, the sway to the right will most likely continue. And who knows, Guru may be kept ready for just before the next general elections, which may be advanced .
Economic right wing moves like the FDI in multi-brand retail, dilution of stakes in eternally sick PSUs and others are likely to be used to prop up an image which will trap the BJP voter. But how will the Muslim and the core BJP voter go together in any scheme? It is an unbridgeable gap but the Congress is trying to lay a collapsible bamboo bridge across this divide.
Various election oriented moves will be carried out over the next few months, since the Congress has now tasted blood. Once the multi-brand FDI issue is sorted out inside or outside Parliament, two more big-ticket issues will also come to the table: The National Investment Board (Chidambaram’s NIB coming after his NIA) and the raising of FDI cap in insurance.
After this the stage will be set: get the aam aadmi on board through huge cash transfers and the NREGA story, the minorities by pointing to the despicable state of the BJP and the danger of a Modi at the Centre, the mainstream Hindus with the triumphalism of the Kasab hanging and maybe by the PM deffering the visit to Pakistan. The Congress being a centrist party can afford to swing this sway and that. But now the saffron shade of the Congress is what is getting clearer.