Halfway and hung

Print edition : May 22, 2009

NCP leader Sharad Pawar. He has said the Congress will not be able to form the government without the support of its UPA allies and the Left parties.-PTI

THE clearest indication of the political direction the country would take after the 15th general elections came from Sharad Pawar, president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and a Prime Minister-aspirant, on April 26, three days after the second phase of polling. Talking to the media, Pawar said the Congress would emerge as the single largest party with 150 to 160 seats. He put the Bharatiya Janata Partys tally at 125.

More significantly, Pawar said the Congress would not be able to form the next government without the support of the Left parties and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies such as Lalu Prasads Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Ram Vilas Paswans Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) and Mulayam Singh Yadavs Samajwadi Party (S.P.). It was as clear and concrete a depiction of the poll trends as one could get in the context of the long-winding election process.

None of the other leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Leader of the Opposition Lal Krishna Advani, has made bold to project the number of seats their or other parties would win. However, both the leaders have, in more ways than one, assented to Pawars projection about the importance that the Left and the regional parties will have in the next Lok Sabha.

Responding to pointed queries about a revival of ties with the Left, Manmohan Singh said on April 20 that he was open to all possibilities. Advanis agreement with the point made by Pawar was more nuanced. Obviously, he could not list the Left as a potential post-poll ally, but the BJPs Prime Minister-designate does cherish the hope that the BJPs and the National Democratic Alliances (NDA) electoral performance will compel former allies such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Trinamool Congress to return to the alliance.

Clearly, the formation of the next government is dependent on a number of ifs and buts and this lack of clarity is reflected in the campaign for the five-phased elections too. None of the projected thrust issues of the two main parties has had an impact on the electorate.

The Congress effort was to highlight the track record of the UPA government in the social sector and the promise of inclusive governance. The BJP jointly and severally sought to advance issues such as national security, the need to bring back black money deposited illegally in Swiss banks and use it for nation-building, and the need to use information technology for the overall development of various sectors.

This correspondent travelled more than 4,000 kilometres by road in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar during the election campaign and interacted with a large number of people, but nowhere were these issues discussed as vital topics. In fact, most people in many villages and towns of these Hindi heartland States were not even aware of the black money issue that Advani so avidly put forth in his campaign meetings.

All that one could deduce from these public interactions was that the majority held the view that the Congress was better suited to run the country at the national level. However, almost the same number of people were convinced that the Congress had a penchant for misusing power too.

In this context, the BJPs campaign on issues such as the official withdrawal of the Interpol Red Corner notice against Ottavio Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors bribery case, has evoked some reverberations. The Congress defence that the party or its government had nothing to do with it has not gone down very well with the people. To the BJPs credit, it has focussed the campaign on the functioning of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and how it has become a tool in the hands of the Congress.

However, the efforts by sections of the BJP to extend this argument and club the Quattrocchi issue with the Supreme Court order for a special probe into the role played by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the 2002 communal carnage in the State have not received a positive response. The majority of people across these States appeared to be convinced about Modis culpability.

So, if one were to make a broad deduction, the Congress was seen as being capable of corrupting public institutions and using them as political tools. At the same time, large segments of public opinion were not ready to condone the BJPs pursuit of aggressive Hindutva.

What stood out in the public interactions across the Hindi heartland was that beyond all the emotive and not-so-emotive issues advanced by the two big parties, the electorate was more interested in bread-and-butter issues. In village after village one heard people say that they were more interested in BIPASA, or bijli, pani, sadak (electricity, water and roads), than highfalutin issues such as black money in Swiss banks and catchwords such as inclusive governance.

Along with this general concern, diverse regional issues relating to caste-based permutations and combinations impacted different constituencies in different ways. These diverse factors are certain to have a significant impact on the overall result. Organisational and perception-related problems, too, had a negative impact on the campaigns of the two major formations. The advantage that the Congress and its partners in the UPA had at the start of the campaign process was nullified when UPA Ministers and associates such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav launched caustic attacks on the Congress, holding it responsible, along with the BJP, for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Several Congress leaders admitted to Frontline that such acrimonious exhibition of political resentment would deplete the perception-vote significantly. Similarly, Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumars refusal to share the stage with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had a negative impact on the NDAs overall electoral thrust. In fact, at his public meetings Nitish Kumar refrained from endorsing Advani as the NDAs Prime Minister candidate.

If this was the situation in the two big parties, the so-called Fourth Front, of the RJD, the S.P., and the LJP was also at the receiving end of the perception vote. On the one hand the parties claimed to be partners of the UPA and on the other they castigated the Congress and its leadership. This did not go well with large sections of the core support base, including Muslims, of these parties.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the BJPs prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. Both have, in more ways than one, assented to the importance of the Left and the regional parties in the next Lok Sabha.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The assessment within the Fourth Front was that the S.P. suffered reverses in the first phase of the elections in Uttar Pradesh. The first two phases in the State were mainly a contest between the S.P. and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But the trends had both parties worried. The Brahmin vote did not seem to swing towards to the BSP, while the S.P. may have faced a serious erosion of Muslim votes. It was the frustration of these reverses that perhaps made Lalu, Paswan and Mulayam blow hot and cold against the Congress.

In the midst of all this, parties belonging to the non-Congress, non-BJP formation, including the Left parties, evoked a reasonably good response in their campaigns. The Left parties kept economic policy issues at the core of their campaign, which were essentially linked to the BIPASA issues raised by the electorate in many places. However, the impact of this will be felt only in the limited number of seats because the non-Congress, non-BJP formations political and organisational reach is confined to a few States.

In this background, each formation has made its own calculations for the 265 seats that went to the polls in the first two phases. Of these seats, the Congress has 75 and its present allies, the NCP, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), 16. The BJP has 63 and its allies, including the Shiv Sena, the JD (U) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), 16. The Left parties have 24 and the other parties in the non-Congress, non-BJP formation, including the BSP, have 31 seats. The RJD, the S.P. and the LJP together have 34. The remaining six seats are with others.

In 2004, the Congress made major gains in Andhra Pradesh (29 out of 40 seats), Assam (nine out of 14) and Jharkhand (six out of 14) and moderate gains in Karnataka (eight), Maharashtra (eight), Bihar (three) and Uttar Pradesh (three). Even the Congress leadership admits that the party will not be able to repeat its performance in Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Jharkhand.

However, the party believes that it will make substantial gains in Kerala (where it had none in 20 seats) and Orissa (two out of 21). It also hopes to make some gains in Karnataka and Maharashtra. So, the calculation is that its losses and gains will even out. And, if it can spring some surprises in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh it may actually surpass its 2004 tally.

The BJPs 63 seats came mainly from Madhya Pradesh (12), Karnataka (nine), Orissa (nine), Maharashtra (11), Chhattisgarh (10) and Uttar Pradesh (four). The BJP expects to retain its tally in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, and improve in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam. Clearly, on the basis of polling trends, the BJP hopes for a sizable improvement in its 2004 tally in these 265 seats.

In the non-Congress, non-BJP formation, the Left parties are bound to lose in the constituencies that voted in the first two phases. They have 24 seats, including 18 from Kerala. Other parties in the formation, such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and the Janata Dal (Secular) are of the view that polling trends indicate an addition to their tally. The TDP expects significant additions and the other two marginal additions. The BSP has 11 seats of the 265 and is expected to hold on to that number. The Fourth Front has 34 of the 265 in 2004. The S.P. has 14, the RJD 15 and the LJP five. The calculation in these parties is that they will find it difficult to maintain their tally.

Overall, the break-up of seats from the first two phases points to a hung Parliament. It is in this background that Pawar reiterated the value of a Congress alliance with the Left and other regional parties. For the moment, the Left has spoken through Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat and refused to accept a Congress-led government after the polls. But after the elections that position could change to one of qualified support, which places conditions and demands on the Congress.

Karat himself has given an indication of this change of tactic by stating that the Left parties would support only a Lok Sabha member as Prime Minister.

All the four formations expect to improve their respective positions in the remaining phases. The Congress hopes are centred mainly on a revival in West Bengal through the alliance with the Trinamool Congress, while the BJP has great hopes about Gujarat and Bihar. The Fourth Front hopes to retrieve lost ground in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, while the Third Front looks for a clean sweep in Tamil Nadu.

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