Wide open contest

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi campaigning in Bhubaneswar.-ASIT KUMAR/AFP

Congress president Sonia Gandhi campaigning in Bhubaneswar.-ASIT KUMAR/AFP

POINTERS to a probable paradigm shift in the countrys politics have been emerging in the run-up to the 15th Lok Sabha elections. In the last week of March and in early April, they started acquiring a concrete shape. At the political level, this has rankled the two major parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At the level of policy, there is a broad economic policy vision that has emerged with these pointers and its basic character is that it rejects or seeks to correct the policies practised in the past two decades, by the Congress and BJP-led governments. Interestingly, some elements of this vision are being adopted now even by the BJP and the Congress.

Two events, one in Bhubaneswar and the other in Lucknow on April 3 underlined the pointers to the paradigm shift. The event in the Orissa capital was a rally organised jointly by the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which rules the State, the Left parties and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The event in the Uttar Pradesh capital was a joint press conference addressed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP).

On the face of it, the two events had nothing in common. The majority of the parties involved in these exercises were regional players, who essentially pursued disparate regional politics and regional interests. But both the events and the run-up to them rankled the countrys oldest and largest party, the Congress.

Such was the level of rankling in the Congress that the party fielded Home Minister P. Chidambaram, one of its most articulate senior leaders, to castigate the Bhubaneswar conclave a few hours before it was to take place. Chidambaram paid particular attention to the NCP and its leader, Sharad Pawar, requesting his Cabinet colleague not to participate in a Third Front meeting.

Chidambarams contention was that the other organisers of the meet the BJD and the Left parties constituted the Third Front. Pawar ultimately did not participate in the meeting citing a technical snag to his aircraft and addressed the meeting long-distance over telephone. However, his partys general secretary, D.P. Tripathi, was very much there at the conclave. He shared a stage with Naveen Patnaik and Left leaders such as Prakash Karat, A.B. Bardhan and D. Raja.

The clarifications that Pawar gave about his alliance in Orissa were more interesting. He emphasised that the NCP was free to have its own State-level alliances just as the Congress was free to have its own State-level alliances. He made it clear that the NCPs alliance with the Congress was confined to Maharashtra and Goa, while its alliance with the BJD was at the moment, only in Orissa. We are in an alliance with the Congress party only in Maharashtra and Goa and one or two other States, and not in the entire country, Pawar said. Evidently, in spite of Chidambarams warnings and in spite of not being physically present in Bhubaneswar, Pawar and his party had left no one in doubt that they would continue to do business with parties in other formations.

The message that emanated from the Lucknow press conference was no different. Two Ministers of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Lalu Prasad and Paswan, and the leader of the party that saved the Manmohan Singh government at a crucial juncture, Mulayam Singh, announced that they would continue to work as a combination even after the elections. Mulayam Singh and Paswan underscored the fact that the area of operation of their parties Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand accounted for 134 seats in the Lok Sabha and that they expected to emerge as a powerful bloc. At one point during the press conference, Lalu Prasad even suggested that they represented the real UPA and their effort was to keep the original UPA partners united. This has been analysed by many a Congress leader as a not-so-overt branding of the Congress as a unity-wrecker.

On the eve of the press conference, Mulayam Singh commented that he was ready to accept Pawar as the Prime Minister. This had special significance because Pawar was still in an alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra and Goa, while the S.P., the RJD and the LJP had no such problem. Mulayam Singh was obviously trying to use Pawars association with the BJD and the resentment of the Congress over this to wean him towards the S.P.-RJD-LJP grouping.

Though Pawar did not respond to Mulayam Singhs comment, there was little doubt that the four leaders had come up with a calibrated offensive against the Congress on April 2 and 3.

Significantly, the two big parties faced similar offensives elsewhere, too, in the run-up to the elections. In Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) chose to part ways with the Congress. Unlike the three North Indian parties, the PMK joined hands with the Third Front-oriented All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of Jayalalithaa, which has an alliance with the Left parties. The AIADMK itself had earlier parted ways with the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as had the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. The BJD in Orissa did so recently.

There have been many interpretations of these shifts of regional parties to a non-Congress, non-BJP platform. The most simplistic evaluation is that these parties left the two big parties when they were denied the greater political space they bargained for.

Another argument is that these parties are on the lookout for better bargaining power in the post-poll situation of a hung Parliament. While there could be some merit in the latter contention, feedback from a number of regional parties, including the BJD and the RJD, indicate that their rank and file perceive the big parties and many of their policy parameters as handicaps. The economic and foreign policy perspectives of the Congress, particularly that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, do not evoke confidence in a sizable segment of our support base, said an RJD worker from Phulwari Sharief on the outskirts of Patna.

In a sense, this message seems to have gone home to both the Congress and the BJP, albeit in a limited sense. The Congress campaign emphasis on inclusive governance and the special programmes listed in the BJP manifesto for people below the poverty line reflect this understanding. In all probability, the ground situation will force a further tilt in this direction by the big parties.

But whether that by itself would be enough for the big parties to reach within striking distance of power is a moot question. Comments from leaders like Chidambaram asserting that the Left parties are natural allies, who should stay together with the Congress to defeat the communal BJP, suggest that the leading party of the ruling coalition is low on confidence, despite being billed as the front-runner by many opinion polls.

Writing in The Hindu, political analyst and psephologist Yogendra Yadav sums up the situation as one where both the UPA and the NDA have missed their best chance to form the government. He adds that a Third Front government now looks the second most probable outcome of the Lok Sabha race.

Yogendra Yadav is of the view that the UPAs safest route to power would have been an alliance with the S.P. in Uttar Pradesh and a bid to maximise its gains from Kerala, West Bengal and Rajasthan in such a way as to balance its losses in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. The Congress and its pre-poll allies could then have hoped for a combined tally of around 250, thus bringing them within striking distance of a majority. But the failure of alliance talks in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has ensured that this will not happen. Similarly, the Orissa fiasco for the NDA appears to have put paid to its best chance of improving upon its 2004 tally of 189.

Many political observers, including veteran analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, are of the view that even if the policy positions and political stances of non-Congress, non-BJP parties get accepted, they may not be able to rustle up a ruling coalition after the elections. The manifold contradictions among these parties and their narrow-minded leaderships have been exposed time and again. This time would be no different, said Tyagi.

He is also of the view that though the early campaign trends suggest a movement by significant sections of the electorate towards a non-Congress, non-BJP political and policy framework, sustaining that through the month-long polling process would be difficult.

It is widely acknowledged across the country that Sonia Gandhi is the tallest leader in this election and the Congress is the largest party with moderate, middle-path views. That perception is bound to stabilise in the days to come, helping the Congress improve its individual tally. This, in turn, would make all these regional forces to once again fall in line with the leading party of the UPA, Tyagi asserted.

Prakash Karat, CPI(M) general secretary and one of the main proponents of the non-Congress, non-BJP alternative, told Frontline that it was nobodys claim that the Third Alternative or a Third Front had been formed. He said: What we are witnessing now is the steady development of a cooperative federal alliance, a kind of federation of parties. Many parties who have come together as part of this federation have still not assimilated the ideal of the Third Alternative fully, which means that it would take some time to decide things and initiate concrete steps towards building a structured front. Karat added that the CPI(M) was confident that it would be able to contribute significantly to a common minimum programme (CMP) for a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative. He said the party had sufficient experience in doing it since it was part of the CMP formulation exercise in 1996 and in 2004.

It remains to be seen how far the expectations of leaders like Karat fructify in the days to come. Whatever the final result, one thing is clear: a debate on an alternative political arrangement based on alternative policies has become an integral part of the current election scene. Whether it would finally acquire enough organisational muscle to establish a concrete system is, at the moment, in the realm of conjecture. But the steady movement of regional parties to a non-Congress, non-BJP position continues.

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