Hung, not hopeless
AFTER the announcement of the schedule of what promises to be a landmark general election, efforts to work out new political alignments have gathered even greater momentum and a frantic, no-holds-barred character. India has always witnessed political haggling before major elections.
AFTER the announcement of the schedule of what promises to be a landmark general election, efforts to work out new political alignments have gathered even greater momentum and a frantic, no-holds-barred character. India has always witnessed political haggling before major elections. But this time, its reach and intensity are unprecedented.
Thus, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is openly exploring the possibility of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and has reportedly reached an understanding with the Shiv Sena that it would support Sharad Pawar’s prime ministerial candidature. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has made a public overture to the Congress, of which it has long been a vociferous critic.
In this muddled, uncrystallised scenario, four trends are apparent. First, neither of the two major “national” blocs – the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – commands an unambiguous advantage.
The UPA has not yet firmed up a national-level alliance. The Congress wants to go it alone, but it is under pressure from Sharad Pawar to go beyond State-level seat-sharing.
The NDA has shrunk from 24 parties to seven, of whom only the Janata Dal (United), the Akali Dal and the Biju Janata Dal are sizeable. The BJP is confident of winning only in Gujarat, and probably in Madhya Pradesh. Recent elections show that it is generally on the defensive in western and central India (barring Gujarat), which account for 40 per cent-plus of its Lok Sabha members.
No major party is wooing the BJP, once a preferred partner. Its “nation-in-danger-from-terrorism-Muslims-Pakistan” platform has made little impact. It has no programme with appeal outside the upper-caste upper-class urban elite.
Second, although the process of regionalisation of politics continues, a Third Front, comprising non-Congress non-BJP regional parties with the backing of the Left, is yet to emerge clearly with an identifiable fulcrum. It is only in Andhra Pradesh that a broad coalition, with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Left and the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), has crystallised.
After Jayalalithaa’s courtship of the Congress, it is unclear whether the recent understanding between the Left and the AIADMK will hold in Tamil Nadu. With the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) having decided to chart its own course, there is unlikely to be a pre-election Third Front in the north or nationally. What happens after the election is a matter of speculation.
Third, there is likely to be a major change in the weight of different States in deciding the election’s final outcome. Uttar Pradesh is unlikely to play its traditional role as the all-important swing State. It is likely to share that role with Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
If a poll conducted by the CNN-IBN-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in January is to be believed, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala are likely to favour the UPA, while Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Orissa seem inclined towards the NDA. The survey forecasts a 36 per cent national vote and 215-235 seats for the UPA, and a 29 per cent vote and 165-185 seats for the NDA.
Admittedly, psephologists have been proved wrong in recent elections, including in their exit polls. Besides, the survey was conducted well before the UPA’s Interim Budget and tax rebates announced in the second half of February.
Nevertheless, the qualitative State-level assessments of the CNN-IBN-CSDS poll seem plausible.
Finally, some factors that used to influence election outcomes, including famously, the “anti-incumbency burden”, have recently lost part of their potency. A special section in Economic and Political Weekly (February 9) analysing electoral trends shows that 77 per cent of parties in power were defeated in Assembly elections between 1989 and 1998. That percentage fell to 46 in 2004-08.
Similarly, defying the recent trend in which Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim legislators and voters moved from the S.P. towards the BSP, the latest by-election from Bhadohi near Varanasi suggests that many Muslims back the S.P. According to preliminary estimates, the S.P. attracted a significant number of Dalit votes, which were considered a BSP monopoly. It may not be wise to write this off as a freak, one-off result.
What is amazing in all this is that the Congress is stiffly resisting a national-level alliance, presumably in the belief that its stewardship of the UPA was a shining example of governance and that it is destined to come to power on its own. The Congress built the UPA on the promise of providing an antidote to the NDA’s communal, divisive and elitist policies.
The UPA pledged inclusive aam admi policies, affirmative action for religious minorities and the underprivileged, reassertion of secularism, and a return to balanced and independent foreign and security policies. Its actual record is at best patchy, and in some respects disappointing – witness the India-United States nuclear deal.
The UPA failed to bring justice to the victims of the Gujarat pogrom – Manmohan Singh did not utter the “G word” even once – and barring the revision of communal textbooks, did little to defend and promote secularism. The UPA, by and large, continued with the NDA’s neoliberal policies. Recently, it squandered an opportunity to launch large-scale public works to counter the economic slowdown, and instead gave a Rs.65,000-crore bailout to various businesses, including automobiles, civil aviation, real estate, and so on.
Except for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and primary education, the UPA’s rural development schemes have not fared well.
For instance, less than half the targets for village roads, rural electrification and irrigation have been met. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General, as much as Rs.51,000 crore allocated to its flagship schemes for development and poverty alleviation and was transferred to district authorities, non-governmental organisations and autonomous bodies, with no account of whether or how it was spent.
Apart from increasing the NREGA allocation from Rs.16,000 to Rs.30,000 crore, the Centre’s Interim Budget announced no major pro-poor measures. Allocations to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and Drinking Water Mission hardly rose. The NREGA raise is attributable to its extension to all the 597 rural districts.
Even the NREGA budget pales into insignificance beside the Rs.36,000-crore increase in military spending. Counting Defence pensions, the increase works out to an obscene Rs.40,000 crore. Much of this is to be used to buy new weapons, many of them irrelevant to any notion of adequate defence but vital to power projection beyond the South Asian region.
This splurge is not a rational response to the Mumbai terror attacks: no long-range missiles, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibian craft or fighter-planes are needed to counter terrorism. The rise is part of the Congress’ muscle-flexing vis-a-vis Pakistan to counter the BJP’s charge that it is “soft” on terrorism. The Congress is unlikely to gain by appropriating the BJP’s chauvinist platform. It has always lost both credibility and votes by doing so.
If the Congress has failed to generate an imaginative mass appeal, the UPA is even worse placed to retain its present strength. In 2004, it performed spectacularly in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Delhi, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, winning 129 of their 156 Lok Sabha contests.
It is highly improbable that the UPA can repeat this. In Tamil Nadu, it has lost allies. In Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is likely to lose ground to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). In Gujarat, the UPA is unlikely to retain 12 out of 26 seats, and in Assam 9 of out 14 seats.
The UPA can, of course, make up in small States such as Kerala, Orissa and the tribal-dominated northeastern region, and to some extent in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, and possibly, Karnataka. But these will not be bulk gains, of the kind that Uttar Pradesh can deliver. If the Congress’ troubled alliance with the S.P. works out in Uttar Pradesh, it could do well. But the Congress is bargaining hard with the S.P. and may face many “friendly contests”.
Under the circumstances, the UPA’s seat tally may not go much beyond the 200-230 range. This would not be enough to form a government at the Centre – unlike in 2004, when the Left’s 62 Members of Parliament supported the alliance.
The other bidders
The NDA is not well placed to gain from the UPA’s stagnation. Even if the BJP improves its own score of 138 seats, the NDA’s tally is unlikely to cross the 200-seat mark.
That leaves the BSP, on the one hand, and the embryo of a Third Front, on the other. Despite its impressive recent electoral record, the BSP cannot reproduce the Uttar Pradesh model in other States. Uttar Pradesh is unique in having the highest proportion of upper castes in the population (over 20 per cent), and numerous Dalits (17 per cent), besides Muslims (19 per cent). It would be a surprise if its national tally crosses 45 to 50.
The Third Front is unlikely to be able to make a bid for power even assuming that it crystallises properly. Even if many regional parties do well, the Third Front cannot attract them because some of them are already aligned with the Congress or the BJP.
This uncertainty will end only when party programmes and strategies are radically restructured to reflect a closer alignment with the needs of the underprivileged and progressive social movements.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.