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Difficult choices

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997



With the fragmentation of the political milieu over the years, the electoral process has been transformed into an arena for the assertion of a bewildering variety of group identities.


A PARTY of hoary vintage desperately trying to retrieve lost political capital by clinging to the apron strings of the widow of its one-time supreme leader; a coalition that is unsure of its basic identity and unable to distinguish friend from foe; a party that purports to pursue an agenda of cultural nationalism while actually pursuing a policy of persecution against religious minorities - Elections 1998 seems to confront the Indian voter with an unclear choice.

For reasons that are not too obscure, all the early momentum in the build-up to the elections has been the Bharatiya Janata Party's, considering the range of political allies that it has managed to bring on board. The United Front may have otherwise seemed to be the haven of choice for footloose political formations in search of a niche in the national political arena. But after coming into existence as a consciously anti-BJP formation, the U.F. has, to all appearances, failed to embellish its platform with any more distinctive emblems of a political identity. The slogan of social justice has united sections of the beneficiaries, but it has proved divisive on other fronts. An identity defined by negative association cannot sustain a political platform indefinitely. That the U.F. failed to utilise its interlude in power in a constructive manner, to flesh out the plank of secularism and social justice with an economic programme that the electorate could identify with, does its cause no good.

The Congress(I), for its part, is torn between slavish dependence on dynastic charisma, a legacy of gross indifference to the interests of core constituencies such as Dalits and minorities, and till now a fruitless effort to undo recent misdeeds through hastily assembled alliances in regions where it retains no more than a token presence. A tie-up with Laloo Prasad Yadav's breakaway party in Bihar was recently solemnised to the accompaniment of much jubilation within the ranks. But this only provoked a series of other schisms. Arithmetically, Jagannath Mishra's desertion in Bihar may be a marginal problem for the Congress(I), as it does not undo any of the electoral benefits of its new friendship with Laloo Prasad. The risk, rather, is of accelerated irrelevance for the party that claims uniquely to own the legacy of the freedom movement.

Between Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri's proven electoral incompetence and Laloo Prasad's proven ability to recruit mass loyalties, there can be little doubt which will prevail. The diminution of the Congress(I) from vanguard party to appendage is rendered more likely by Laloo Prasad's messianic approach towards forging a new national front that will take in all the parties that cannot hitch their fortunes to either the U.F. or the BJP. But this gathering of the misfits - from Shankarsinh Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party to Kanshi Ram's Bahujan Samaj Party and sundry others - would in all likelihood come a cropper on account of the constituent parties' established track records of incompetence in administration.

The declining potential of Laloo Prasad's unique combination of caste constituencies was apparent in the 1996 general elections. He has not done much since then to arrest or reverse this trend, aside from projecting his own misplaced sense of grievance at a well-merited indictment as a national political issue.

IN its current state of disarray, the Congress(I) is liable to lose sight of various other vulnerable flanks as it tries to address the more serious gaps in its political influence. Carried off its feet by the euphoria of the deal with Laloo Prasad, the Congress(I) was caught on the blind side by the BJP which won the favour of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. Although the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that Jayalalitha heads may have suffered a complete shut-out in the last parliamentary elections, it retains a reasonable share of the popular vote. But the Congress(I) in Tamil Nadu stands decimated by bitter animosities among its main leaders. And its noisy advocacy of the Jain Commission Interim Report that sought to crucify an entire people for complicity in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, has done its cause no good.

Jayalalitha has followed a time-honoured convention of the Dravidian parties in backing a national party that is perceived to have the best chance of victory in parliamentary elections. In the days of Congress(I) dominance, the rival Dravidian parties used to vie for its favour. By switching her patronage to the BJP, Jayalalitha has starkly highlighted just how far the Congress' descent has gone. Beleaguered as she is by mounting evidence of rampant corruption, Jayalalitha's political blessings may not bring unequivocal benefits to the BJP. But if the party's modest ambitions of contesting a handful of seats in Tamil Nadu are fulfilled, then it could go a long way towards establishing a profile in a region where its distinctive ideology has never enjoyed much influence.

RAMAKRISHNA HEGDE'S Lok Shakti in Karnataka is clearly another prospective ally for the BJP. Having politely turned down Laloo Prasad's invitation to participate in the formation of his so-called secular front, Hegde seemingly has no other place to go. In a State where the BJP has made dramatic gains in recent years, the incremental share of votes Hegde could deliver might well make the difference between finishing third in a tight three-cornered contest and winning. Karnataka is a State the BJP perhaps has good reason to look forward to. Here, the Congress(I) is visibly afflicted by a leadership deficit and the ruling Janata Dal is in disarray.

Other prospective allies that the BJP may have sought, such as Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, have not quite taken that final decisive plunge. Never easily placated, Mamata Banerjee has been increasingly at odds with the Kesri dispensation in the Congress(I). She made her moves at the right time, spurned Kesri's desperate efforts at conciliation and relented only when she had obtained a token intervention from Sonia Gandhi and assurances from the party leadership that she would enjoy pre-eminence in the Congress' West Bengal campaign.

Fawning devotees of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty insist that the Mamata case is only the precursor to a growing degree of intervention and supervision of the party's affairs by Sonia Gandhi. But these prognoses may well have more than an element of wishful thinking in them. The reality is that Sonia Gandhi's apparent ineptitude, cleverly concealed in silence, is becoming a weapon in the relentless internal warfare waged by faction leaders such as Arjun Singh within the Congress(I). It is far from clear whether the party will benefit from this process in terms of establishing a new internal equilibrium of forces and a renewed claim to popular allegiance. What is more likely is that its state of chronic internal instability will persist well into the election campaign, cast a long shadow over the choice of candidates, and possibly scupper the chances of all the main factions uniformly.

THE Left parties are sitting out the preliminary phase of the electioneering with a pronounced sense of disquiet. Early thinking within the main Left formation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was to engage fully with the U.F's effort to offer an alternative to the BJP and the Congress(I), though with its distinct identity maintained. The dominant thinking was to approach the elections with a separate manifesto, though to join other constituents of the U.F. in a common appeal to the voters. The Communist Party of India, after its most recent National Council meeting, decided to go one step further. Party general secretary A.B. Bardhan spoke in terms of the U.F. having a common manifesto for the elections. This proposal is far from winning generalised assent on the Left.

As far as its own chances are concerned, the Left will have little difficulty maintaining its current modest tally in the Lok Sabha. Kerala gave the Left an unexpected bonus of seats in 1996, though the environment in West Bengal had turned inclement with a number of seats going to the Congress(I). The outlook for the Left in West Bengal appears far more optimistic now, with Mamata Banerjee's skirmishes with the Congress(I) high command unlikely to subside even with the declaration of a truce. Kerala remains as unpredictable as ever, with only the traditional hair's breadth difference in popular vote share expected to make the crucial difference. As for Bihar, which had contributed to the CPI's Lok Sabha tally last time, the outlook is anything but rosy.

THE first few general elections in India may have been occasions for a public display of adulation and loyalty towards a supreme leader and the party that symbolised the country's independence. The minute group interests that today predominate politics were then submerged in a statement of allegiance towards a supreme national leader. The last two parliamentary elections were perhaps about the clash of ideas - of different notions of Indian nationhood in collision, of a conflict between rival perceptions of how to organise the economy. That age of great ideas and great personalities is now clearly a thing of the past. The milieu has become more fragmented, with the electoral process being transformed into an arena for the assertion of a bewildering variety of group identities. Success now is ensured for the party that is able to recruit the largest number of patronage wielders and power brokers to its ranks. The reality that the Congress(I) managed to conceal - though with a rising degree of difficulty as the stature of its leadership declined - is now out in the open. Only this time, it is the BJP that seems to be setting the pace for other groupings to match.



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