Polity in flux

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

in New Delhi

THE number of jokers in the pack is increasing. Without doubt, this is not good news for the polity or for political stability. This is what a senior Congress leader told a group of friends and party activists on the evening of April 16, even as reports on the polling trends in the first phase of the general elections started pouring into his office from different parts of the country. Barely an hour earlier, the leader was waxing eloquent on how a special team of experts from various disciplines was drawing up plans for the first 100 days of the next Congress-led government. All those who have left us temporarily will come back once the polls are over. We will have enough seats to attract them back, the leader had said. The reports about the polling trends seem to have shaken his confidence.

The tone and tenor of the discussions that went on among the leader and his colleagues that evening indicated that the partys calculations did not match its expectations. While the Congress had expected setbacks in Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand among the 14 States and three Union Territories that went to the polls on April 16, it had firmly believed that it would make major gains in Kerala and Orissa and minor gains in Uttar Pradesh. It had also expected to hold on to its previous score in Maharashtra. The feedback that the Congress leader received from the States did confirm the expected reverses in Andhra Pradesh. However, affirmation about any gains was absent in the reports from Kerala, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. A variety of factors, ranging from organisational apathy to the presence of new regional parties, such as the Praja Rajyam in Andhra Pradesh, and small-time spoilers, such as the Ulema Council (U.C.) in eastern Uttar Pradesh, were cited as the reasons for this.

It was not the Congress alone that got its expectations wrong. The debate among several Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insiders in Delhi was that the partys performance in Maharashtra was not what had been projected in the detailed study notes it had prepared. However, there was also the assumption that the gains accrued to the BJP in eastern Uttar Pradesh were much higher than its expectations. As per the feedback available to the BJP leadership, the party appears to have maintained its position of advantage in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Given the trend in Maharashtra, the BJP is not sure if it will be able to push the Congress to the number two position in the remaining phases. The doubt was expressed by none other than Sushma Swaraj, former Union Minister and senior BJP leader. Her comment, made a few days before the first round of polling, was that she was not sure whether the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would get a majority or whether the BJP would emerge as the single largest party. Other top leaders of the BJP, including party president Rajnath Singh and prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, however, continue to maintain that the BJP would emerge as the single largest party. Congress leaders nurture similar hopes.

In a nutshell, the message that emanated from the camps of the two big parties was that their calculations had gone awry. Both the parties had displayed a penchant for miscalculation while assessing the affinity or lack of it of their existing and potential alliance partners. This inability was evident when the BJP lost an ally in the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa and the Congress watched the spectacle of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Ramvilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) charting their own independent course in association with a potential Congress ally, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.).

Other constituents of the coalitions led by the two parties were also making disparate noises, which obviously did not suit the larger goals of the two main contenders. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar, a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), repeatedly stressed the importance of an alliance with important Left parties after the polls. On the NDA side, Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar came up with an ambiguous statement: Today, I am with the NDA, who knows what will happen tomorrow?

According to an associate of the senior Congress leader, what was most worrying was that four more phases of polling remained. Things can get quite volatile during this period. The big question is whether the leadership of our party will have the kind of skills required to handle such uneven political situations, he said.

In the early run-up to the polls, the general assessment in political circles was that the gains of the Big Two would even out their losses. For example, it was expected that the Congress would make some gains in Punjab (where it got only two of the 13 seats in 2004) and that would be nullified in Haryana, where it had nine out of 10. In Gujarat, the BJP was expected to improve upon its 2004 tally of 14 out of 26, while the tally of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra 25 out of 48 was expected to come down. In Karnataka, too, the BJP was expected to maintain its high score (18 out of 28).

But as electioneering gathered momentum, with dramatic developments such as the one that saw journalist Jarnail Singh aim a shoe at Home Minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference in protest against the clean chit given by the Central Bureau of Investigation to Jagdish Tytler in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case, all the poll arithmetic became increasingly deficient. The Sikh resentment against the Congress nomination of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, another accused in the riots case, is naturally bound to have an impact in Punjab, where the population is predominantly Sikh. Naturally, doubts were expressed about the projection of the Congress gains in Punjab. In the case of the BJP, the developing political climate marked by the growing public resentment against the governance in Karnataka, which is seen as promoting aggressive Hindutva, raised questions about the projection that the party would maintain its winning streak in the State.

The withdrawal of the RJD, the LJP and the S.P. in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand from the UPA to form a fourth front added yet another confusing dimension to this process. These States account for 134 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (80 in Uttar Pradesh, 40 in Bihar and 14 in Jharkhand). Any gains or losses in this belt will be crucial for the Congress and the BJP. The effort of the fourth front was obviously to become the most dominant player in the region and thus call the shots when the Congress or any other secular formation emerged with sufficient numbers to form the government at the Centre.

Given this background, the number of States that can throw up surprise results has grown considerably. According to the veteran political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi, the most crucial battles will be those fought in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Punjab. According to him, the elections in these States, taken individually and cumulatively, can impact the three formations to such an extent as to make or mar their importance at the national level. These States together have 301 seats.

While the electoral trends in these States are crucial for the two big players, the trends especially in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are equally important for the Third Front. A good performance by the Third Front in these States will basically be at the cost of the Congress and its allies. A positive result for the Third Front in the 143 seats in these States will naturally make it more appealing to the fourth front.

It is important for the Congress to hold on to its tally in Andhra Pradesh (29 out of 42) and make dramatic gains in West Bengal, Kerala and Punjab where it won six out of 42, none out of 20 and two out of 13 respectively in the last elections. The NDA will have to strive hard for good results in Bihar (where it won 11 out of 40) and Uttar Pradesh (10 out of 80) and maintain its position in Rajasthan (21 out of 25). According to a senior BJP leader, the NDA will have to double its seats in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in order to be anywhere in the reckoning for power. Only such a result will make us attractive once more to former and prospective partners such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [AIADMK] and the BJD, he said.

Obviously, all this is easier said than done. According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, the problem with the two big parties is that they are forced to fight known adversaries as well as unknown, undefined ones. The strengths and weaknesses of the known adversaries can be measured with some level of accuracy, but gauging the impact of unknown adversaries is almost impossible.

And the current political climate is such that even known political entities are at times acquiring the dimensions of the unknown. It is a kind of surreal political flip-flop. It is these flip-flops that you see when Nitish Kumar wonders where he will be tomorrow or when Lalu Prasad or Sharad Pawar say that the Left parties are natural allies. Undoubtedly, this has complicated the picture further for the big parties.

Indra Bhushan Singhs observation does have great relevance when one considers the fact that barring the Left, all parties are talking about post-poll regrouping. Even the big two are not exempt from this kind of convoluted discourse. BJP leaders, including Advani, are on record that they are still hopeful about the return of regional parties such as the AIADMK, the BJD and the Trinamool Congress to the fold, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made bold to say that regional parties are not good for the development of the country and that he regrets having had to part with the Left.

He also added that the Congress would be only too happy to take the support of the Left parties after the elections. Evidently, the message about too many jokers in the pack has spread far and wide in the countrys elections to the 15th Lok Sabha.

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