On slippery ground

Print edition : April 08, 2011

The confidence exuded by the Congress a year ago of easily winning the Assembly elections in 2011 is missing now.

in New Delhi

A flex board in Kochi featuring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.-H. VIBHU

AAJ paanch pradesh, kal saara desh (five States today, the whole country tomorrow). This was the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) campaign slogan for the rounds of Assembly elections in 1993 and 2003. The current national political context in which the elections are scheduled to be held in April and May for the States of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry, has revived the spirit of that slogan and the political developments that accompanied it, albeit with different nuances. In 1993, the BJP failed to live up to the optimism it projected. It was able to win only in Delhi and Rajasthan and lost in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where it had hoped to make major gains. In 2003, it won in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and lost in Delhi, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. The run-up to the 1993 elections was characterised by the high-pitched fervour of the Hindutva movement on the Ayodhya issue after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. In 2003, the BJP was on a high with its build-up to the India Shining campaign. The BJP's expectations of a smooth sailing on both occasions were belied.

Similarly, less than a year ago, the Congress and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) strongly believed that the coalition would sweep the Assembly elections in 2011. The basis for this confidence was the UPA's stunning performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in the four States and in Puducherry. The Congress and its allies continued their forward march in all these States. It was widely perceived that in Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry, where the Congress or its allies are in power, there was political consolidation in favour of the ruling party. It was also believed that in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left-ruled States of Kerala and West Bengal, the ruling coalitions were losing ground to the Congress and its partners. In a nutshell, winning the elections in 2011 was considered to be a cakewalk.

Not any longer. The developments in the past nine months have dulled the overconfidence of the Congress and its allies in these States. The reason is not far to seek. The spectrum of scams that hit the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in 2010 have made them tone down the exuberance. Questionable decisions in the allotment of 2G (second-generation wireless telephony) spectrum, the controversial Antrix-Devas deal, misappropriation of funds and corruption in the conduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the blatant violation of rules in the construction and allotment of Adarsh Housing Society apartments in Mumbai, and, finally, the latest WikiLeaks expose (published in The Hindu) on the cash-for-votes manoeuvres during the confidence vote on the nuclear deal faced by the first UPA government, may not have shaken the coalition but surely have dimmed its electoral prospects. A Union Minister and a Chief Minister were removed from office on account of some of these scams. To add to the woes of the coalition, the Supreme Court struck down the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). Further, the embarrassing questions raised by the court with regard to the 2G scam had a direct impact on the political and individual credibility of the Prime Minister and his colleagues.

The Prime Minister was often found wanting in his responses. His reaction to the WikiLeaks expose marked a high point of this inadequacy. The thrust of his response was that he had not authorised anybody to purchase votes. Naturally, this failed to convince the opposition and put an end to the commotion in Parliament.

Apart from the scams and controversies, spiralling prices and economic mismanagement have turned the public sentiment against the UPA. The infighting and brinkmanship games indulged in by the Congress and its allies such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have also dented their image. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was seen as arm-twisting the DMK to get more seats using the 2G spectrum issue. The net result is that the certainty of 2009 has given way to apprehension in the UPA constituents' rank and file.

This despite the disarray and confusion among its major opponents. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF ) in Kerala caused unwarranted political skirmishes (see separate stories). But even that has not helped end the panic in the Congress. In West Bengal, where the Left Front is facing the biggest challenge in 34 years of its existence, many observers doubt whether the Trinamool-Congress alliance will score an easy victory.

Large sections of the Congress leadership still hope that the party and its allies will get their act together and focus essentially on caste and community vote equations in this round of elections. According to a senior Congress leader from Kerala, the minority communities in these States had shown their predilection for the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and in other elections held there, and issues such as corruption and mismanagement are unlikely to change their political allegiance. It is on this strength that we will win in these States, he told Frontline.

But he admitted that between 2009 and now many ifs and buts had cropped up in the political scenario and it was difficult to identify a single dominant theme in the States facing elections that would impact national politics. Making a sports analogy, he said this round of elections could be considered the quarter-finals of the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. The semi-final will be played next year, when Uttar Pradesh, which sends the maximum number of elected members to the Lok Sabha, witnesses Assembly elections, he said.

Battle for survival

In all the four States and Puducherry, there is no direct contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress is locking horns either with the Left parties led by the CPI(M), which will certainly not join hands with the BJP, or with regional players such as the AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). For the Left and the regional parties, this election is essentially a battle for survival, a struggle in which they must win in order to retain their political influence.

The situation a year ago was that the Left and the regional parties had no chance of winning the battle. But the developments at the national level that have affected the UPA government have revived their hopes.

Trend of tri-polarity

On a higher plane, the April-May elections will strengthen the trend of tri-polarity that emerged in the early 1990s. This is bound to give a fillip to the N. Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. After the elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, Chief Minister and BSP leader Mayawati is likely to emerge as an important player in the next political battle at the national level.

Even as such a prospect looms over the political horizon, sections of the political and industrial classes are hoping that the results of May 13 will smash whatever little influence Left politics has in the country. This, they hope, will force regional parties such as the TDP and the BJD to accept the idea of bipolar politics and align more permanently with the BJP.

A senior functionary of a major trade and commerce body pointed out that such a shift would mark the biggest change and opportunity in national politics in a long time. The decimation of the Left would take away the third political and ideological pole that many powerful regional parties use as a crutch from time to time. This would be specifically applicable to the traditional opponents of the Congress, who will have to choose then between isolation at the national stage or a more or less permanent alliance with the BJP. The success of the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance under Nitish Kumar could also hasten this process of realignment, he pointed out.

However, as things stand now, such projections seem a little far-fetched because of the BJP's soft-pedalling on issues such as money laundering and the CVC case (see separate story) in its campaign against the Congress and the UPA. The BJP's actions have strengthened the doubts that many important regional players have about the credibility of the two mainstream forces and the level of real animosity that exists between them. In all probability, the credibility deficit will enthuse the forces of regionalism both in terms of real political issues and realpolitik, where brinkmanship is an important concomitant.

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