A KARGIL ELECTION?

Print edition : September 11, 1999

There is a 'Kargil inflation' in the BJP-led alliance's prospects in the ongoing national elections. Although a 'Kargil deflation' also seems logical and inevitable, it is impossible to predict the timing of its onset and its effects.

IF democracy involves a continual process of learning through experience, the interregnum between the dissolution of the 13th Lok Sabha and the election of the next one has presented the country with a new spectacle - of a government devoid of a real dem ocratic mandate winning popular endorsement through the prosecution of war. The heights of Kargil were the arena where a government's tattered image was dramatically refurbished, where a party that had little going for it except an affected sense of grie vance over the premature termination of its effort at governance regained a measure of popular legitimacy.

BJP leader and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee addressing an election rally in Karnal, Haryana, in August. The assorted backdrop, which features the national flag, the Prithvi missile, the three Service chiefs, and so on, was seen to reflect crude attempts to capitalise on the Kargil developments.-

National elections were notified literally on the day Pakistani forces began an ignominious retreat from Kargil. By then, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee seemed to have put the disorientation and uncertainty of an entire year behind him and to emerge as a national leader by popular acclaim. The euphoria of military victory had decisively snuffed out the transient promise of an election that would not be unduly influenced by extraneous factors.

The Kargil factor is today unmistakably at work across the country. At most it may be moderated or mediated by other localised factors in some areas or States to a greater or lesser degree in its effect on the elections.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi inside a polling booth in New Delhi on September 5 to cast her vote.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Premature declarations of electoral victory can always be hazardous when they are premised upon a phenomenon as fickle as public euphoria. The results of opinion polls, again, have often proven themselves rather remote from the actual shape of the popula r will that emerges from the exercise of the franchise. There are inherent sources of error, especially in a survey of political intentions conducted over a month before they are actually sealed in the ballot boxes.

Further, ground realities as gauged by most observers do not quite square with the picture derived from opinion polls. A micro-examination by States and then further by constituencies would reveal a political picture of mixed fortunes that does not reall y add up to the kind of sweeping mandate forecast by the polls.

At a polling station in Dangs district, Gujarat.-SHERWIN CRASTO/AP

Yet for all that, there is a certain "law of large numbers" which seems to indicate that in the aggregate, opinion polls conducted with an adequate degree of attention to detail would produce results in which the errors neutralise rather than compound ea ch other. The only problem with this generalisation in the current context is that the Kargil factor has uniformly tended to boost perceptions of the BJP-led alliance across the country. Any dilution of the influence of this factor over the month of poll ing would again have an uneven effect, depending on the quirks of the electoral schedule. But a general deflation in the BJP-led alliance's fortunes cannot be ruled out. What is apparent today in the opinion polls is the "Kargil inflation" in the BJP-led alliance's prospects. Although a "Kargil deflation" seems inevitable on current reckoning, it is impossible to predict the precise timing of its onset and subsequent course.

If the deflation does indeed set in, it would exert an influence in the States where polling is scheduled for the latter half of the election schedule. These include Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (September 18 and 25 and October 3), and Madhya Pradesh (Septemb er 11, 18 and 25) - three States of the Hindi belt where the BJP-led alliance has substantial stakes. Moreover, in the largest of these, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP faces the incumbency disadvantage at the State level. Having won 57 of the 85 seats at stake i n U.P., the party may have nowhere to go but down.

YET it seems the undeniable reality today that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP will have the first claim on the formation of the next government. The magnitude of its putative victory could still be debated till the actual counting ends. And there could be further inconclusive discussions over how secure the parliamentary position of the NDA would be, about how vulnerable the prospective new government of Atal Behari Vajpayee would be to multiple pressure groups within its ranks. J ayalalitha has opted out, but a fresh prospect of internal schisms looms in the shape of the newly consolidated "socialist bloc" led by George Fernandes.

The closest analogue to the current electoral situation would be from the United Kingdom immediately after it waged a successful military campaign to regain the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party Prime Mini ster, stood at the nadir of her public approval in early 1982. Her right-wing economic policies had plunged the U.K. into the depths of recession, and public disenchantment was mounting. Falklands provided her with the possibility of redemption, and gene ral elections called in its immediate wake gave her a comfortably enhanced majority. Subsequent developments at the global level - notably the inauguration of a similar regime of right-wing economic policies in the United States, the collapse of internat ional commodity prices and the subjugation of Third World economies through the instrument of debt - endowed her with greater political durability.

Flanked by other leaders of the National Democratic Alliance, Atal Behari Vajpayee releases the NDA manifesto in New Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

For these diverse reasons, the Falklands war is recognised today as a turning point in modern British history. Yet to say that Kargil is a similarly decisive moment for India may strain credulity. For one, though Vajpayee and his External Affairs Ministe r Jaswant Singh have worked with great ardour towards evolving a special relationship with the U.S., there is little evidence yet to suggest a durable shift in U.S. strategic perceptions in the region. For another, the Indian economy confronts a multitud e of vulnerabilities, which are not likely to be mitigated in the prevalent global environment. Further still, the Indian political scene, though seemingly settling down to a comfortable state of bipolarity, will not remain quiescent for long.

THE disappearance of the Third Force, which stood at the core of two efforts at coalition government over the last decade, has seemingly simplified the electoral contest this time around. Only certain elements of this once formidable force - such as Mula yam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and G.K. Moopanar's Tamil Maanila Congress - today insist on maintaining a degree of autonomy from the two main forces. They have been joined by Sharad Pawar's breakaway faction of the Congress(I), the Nationalist Congre ss Party. As always, Kanshi Ram's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) stays resolutely outside all groupings at the national level.

Indications are that even if all these forces were to put their parliamentary resources together, they would be no more than a marginal force in the 14th Lok Sabha. Their relevance would be premised on an indecisive outcome, in which case they would all be more inclined towards the Congress(I) than the BJP-led alliance. In an oppositional role they could, in league with the Congress(I), exert a gravitational pull on the erstwhile participants of Third Force politics who are now reluctant allies of the B JP.

The steering committee of the United Front meets in 1997.-

AN aspect that needs to be factored into the calculation is the level of comfort that the Congress(I) would enjoy in an oppositional role. For the first nine months of the Vajpayee government's tenure, the Congress(I) seemed reconciled to its status as t he main Opposition party, constructively utilising the ample opportunities afforded by the BJP's maladroit style of governance to consolidate its own position. The results of this approach were apparent in the outcome of the Assembly elections held in tw o northern States and Delhi in November 1998. An opinion poll conducted soon afterwards showed that at that juncture the Congress(I) was in a position to win a comfortable national majority if elections to Parliament were held then.

But at the threshold of national revival, the Congress(I) fumbled. It encouraged All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Jayalalitha to pull out of the BJP-led coalition in the evident belief that an alternative government could be formed out of the incoherent arithmetic of the 13th Lok Sabha. The Congress(I) then proceeded to undermine the remote possibility of such an alternative through an adamant insistence on single-party governance, a failure to accommodate diversity and a relapse into an attitude of dynastic absolutism.

After she cemented her authority with the Assembly elections of 1998, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi suffered a severe setback when her rather brash claim that she would conjure up a parliamentary majority within days was proved hollow. A willingness to negotiate terms of political engagement with the numerous parties that had a direct stake in forming an alternative government may have paid off. But the Congress(I) brushed aside all such initiatives, demanding unconditional support for a single-par ty government.

An evocative funeral procession for a soldier who died in Kargil.-RAJEEV BHATT

The Left parties had proved relatively amenable to a single-party government but later sought in vain to persuade the Congress(I) to agree to some form of a power-sharing arrangement with the recalcitrants, such as Mulayam Singh Yadav. Underlying the Co ngress(I)'s arrogance was the belief that even in the event of fresh general elections, it could carry the momentum of November 1998 into a vastly improved performance. What it failed to factor into the calculation were a virtual revolt within its own ra nks, and the outbreak of hostilities on the frontier.

Much of the petulance the Congress(I) has shown in dealing with the Kargil situation can be directly ascribed to the dawning perception that it missed out on a historic opportunity in April. Although there has been much criticism of the failure of the go vernment to act in time on the basis of intelligence available to it early enough and the actual conduct of the military operations in Kargil, there is little question that any government in authority would have followed very much the tack that the Vajpa yee Ministry adopted once the intrusions from Pakistan were discovered. Rather than being at the receiving end of the "Kargil inflation", the Congress(I) might well have been its beneficiary.

Far from holding the initiative now, the Congress(I) has been reduced to searching for the electoral advantages that contingent local circumstances may afford. It is uneasily aware that accretions to its strength would be likely to come from the diminish ing electoral base of the Third Force, rather than at the cost of its principal adversary.

At a polling booth in Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu, on September 5.-VINO JOHN

A certain mood of involution is apparent in the leadership as a consequence of the multiple sources of vulnerability that the Congress(I) faces. Sonia Gandhi's candidacy, which should have been a strong assertion of leadership, was transformed under the guidance of the insecure coterie that surrounds her into a furtive effort to pre-empt the possibility of a strong nominee from the adversary camp. And the elaborate norms that had been worked out by an intra-party committee on ethics were thrown overboar d in the distribution of the party ticket.

The conspicuous sense of disdain that Congress(I) campaigners have since expressed for the concept of coalition politics does little to promote public confidence in the political sagacity of the party's leadership. Absent is a strategic sense, a willingn ess to reconstruct the social and political coalitions that underpinned the Congress(I)'s pretence of single-party governance. Far from being a monolith, in its dynamic phases the Congress(I) was always an amalgam of several political factions. Its decli ne began from the time it failed to adapt to changing social realities, to broaden the compass of its policies to accommodate the diversity of aspirations that had been thrown up since the 1970s.

The alternative strategy was for the Congress(I) to dig itself deeper into the borough of dynastic legitimacy. But since the time of Rajiv Gandhi, dynasty within the Congress(I) has only been as good as its functional results. Its principal merit was tha t behind the facade of a nationally recognised leader, it provided the space for a variety of factional bonds to be cemented. These faction leaders were in turn given their due in terms of authority and opportunities for the dispensation of patronage. Bu t to aspire for a position of absolute authority even in a limited domain, as Sharad Pawar did in Maharashtra, was strictly impermissible. Any such effort would call forth reprisals from the supreme leader, leading to another phase of factional instabili ty.

Where a genuine effort to evolve a collective leadership might have contained the chronic malaise of factional instability, the Congress(I) relapsed further into the caprices of dynastic and coterie politics. Today it seems to provide a superficial assur ance that it will constitute one of the stable poles of Indian politics in a bipolar contest with the BJP. But just as the BJP-led alliance could fray on account of the conflict between the compulsions of pragmatism and the hardline ideological agenda of its principal constituent, the Congress(I) too could enter a phase of turbulence and possible schism soon after the election results come in. If Indian politics seems today to be settling into a bipolar framework, this can only be construed as a transie nt phenomenon. The variety of political forces that today contend for influence clearly cannot be accommodated within these constrictions.

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