Lok Sabha, 2014

The resumption of our parliamentary proceedings has coincided with the cricket World Cup. And, at least in the early rounds, it has looked like more fun than the one-sided matches being played in the World Cup preliminaries. Also, while the first week of the World Cup has still not changed any equations in terms of the eventual favourites, the first week of a functioning Parliament for nearly six months has made one thing dramatically clear: that the election of 2014 is no longer a done deal. Opening exchanges showed a new energy in the opposition, particularly the BJP. In a debate that must rank among the classics of our recent parliamentary history, Sushma Swaraj notably worsted veteran Pranab Mukherjee, point by point, and then gave us one of those moments you cherish in parliamentary politics, by giving a smiling Pranabda a friendly hug at the end of the day. It's been a long time since we saw such mutual large-heartedness in our Parliament.

The BJP's mood is easier to explain. At this time last year, it was staring at a hopeless future. Its top leaders engaged in a Mahabharata of sorts, no happy turning point in sight. Across the ideological fence, their Congress counterparts were sharpening the knives as well, to stab their own in the back as they jockeyed for the spoils of an election already "won" in 2014. And, in the process, brutally undermining their own government much like a body afflicted with autoimmune disease that begins attacking itself. Both sides would acknowledge that an upset of sorts has now been caused. Not that the tables have turned but the next election has been thrown open as nobody would have anticipated.

Five things have made it happen, three of which are rooted in our major states, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, and do not need too much explaining. It is difficult to see the UPA repeating its near-sweep of 2004 and 2009 in Andhra and Tamil Nadu. And the disaster of Bihar stunned the Congress. Even more than its tally of four seats, the shocker was the fact that its candidates lost their deposits in 221 out of the 243 seats it contested. For the NDA, on the other hand, the success of Bihar showed what kind of political gains were available in the new India if you were willing to dump old, exclusionist, negative agendas. Bihar has, therefore, emerged as that fortuitous turning point that an opposition, in the dumps, prays for, so early in the life of a Lok Sabha. The two factors outside of these states are the obvious ones: the withering damage the UPA has suffered because of corruption charges and the discordant, disruptive noises that began emerging from within the Congress, exposing its disastrous complex of ideological laziness, conflicting ambitions and political impatience. And even if its leadership seems to have put down that noise for now, some damage is done.

To understand this shift, National Interest has to revisit its long-held theory that an Indian national election is now like a best-of-nine-sets tennis match whoever wins five of these will take the trophy. These nine "sets" are our large states where electoral fortunes can change: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala

and Karnataka. Together, these account for 351 seats in Lok Sabha, so whichever coalition wins five of these is likely to cross the 200-mark anyway. That 200 is the new 272 in our Lok Sabha now, as you would presume that the same coalition would collect some more seats out of the remaining 192, and if it is still short, some small parties with totally fungible ideologies would join it. If you were a Congress strategist, that equation would look far from reassuring today, and you would be a fool not to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that this will be a much closer election than you had expected it to be. And how does the BJP pass this "best-of-nine-sets" test? It would err in hoping to ride Bihar's euphoria to victory in Lok Sabha, because it does not exist in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, and has been decimated in

Uttar Pradesh.

So where do the UPA and NDA, or, more accurately, the Congress and BJP go from here? The lesson for each is somewhat similar. The next election is its to win or lose depending on whether it can dump some of its awful, outdated and politically suicidal basic instinct or not. Take the Congress first. Its entire politics is built around loyalty to one family. Which, by itself, may not be such a bad thing for it, because it keeps the party together. But should it also continue to mean that the party will build no other, strong leaders, particularly regional chieftains who will conquer their states for it, just like YSR, Hooda and Sheila Dikshit had done in the last election? How many such does the party have right now, particularly in these nine key states? To expect Rahul to go out and win all these states by himself will be a tough call in 2014 when so many of India's voters would have been born after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. So the Congress will have to build a new set of genuinely empowered state leaders, an idea Indira Gandhi junked in 1969.

The BJP, similarly, should know from its Bihar experience that its original, Muslim-hating, narrow Hindutva is now outdated and there are rewards to be had in discarding it. In a state with a sizeable Muslim vote, the BJP has won 91 of the 102 seats it contested, possibly the highest strike rate (90 per cent) for any party ever in our history. Would it have done as well if Modi, Mandir, Hindutva had been floating in the Bihar air? Only if it takes that logical lesson forward, does a mea culpa with Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, can it put together a coalition that will once again begin to look like a winner, particularly if the election does turn out to be that best-of-nine-sets match.

The challenge for both parties is, therefore, similar: liberate itself from its past, bury the old politics of hatred, insecurity, grievance and embrace the new Indian mood of resurgence and aspiration, particularly among the young. The first week of this budget session has confirmed to us that the election of 2014 is now open. The winner would be the party that makes that bold, final and convincing move from its outdated politics of grievance to India's wonderful new politics of aspiration.

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