Can the UPA be put together again ?
Once upon a time, six months ago to be exact, there was a government that was moving full steam ahead. The economy was flourishing, the allies quiescent, and the Opposition dead beat. The ruling party had managed to get its nominee appointed President of the Republic — a sign of its commanding position — the Sensex had breached the 15,000 mark in the space of just half a year, and India’s traditional bugbear, Pakistan, was in the midst of a deep political crisis brought on by the sacking of the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court and the Lal Masjid affair.
Then suddenly the ground started slipping. And in the space of the next six months, Humpty Dumpty was pushed off his perch, ironically by his own friends, and has come apart. Now the proverbial King’s men are exerting mightily to put him together again to fight the next general elections, but somehow the glue does not seem to stick.
It is not as though the warning signals were not there. The defeat in the UP assembly elections in May came despite an enormous amount of effort by the crown prince Rahul Gandhi. But the rapidity with which the whole picture changed in August and September was staggering. It began with the revolt of the CPI(M). For two years since the Indo-US nuclear deal had been announced in July 2005, the party had gone along with the government probably in the belief that the deal would not really come through. Then at the end of July it became clear that the impossible had been achieved, that the country had managed to get a generous 123 Agreement with the US. Suddenly the Left attitude changed and CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat launched a major campaign to derail not just the deal, but question the entire foreign policy track of the United Progressive Alliance.
Buoyed by its success till then, the Congress was initially inclined to fight and tell the Left where to get off. In early October, Sonia Gandhi declared that those attacking the deal were “enemies of development”. There was talk of a possible general election. And then came the craven U-turn: Sonia said her reference was specific to Haryana and Manmohan Singh declared that if the deal did not come through it would not be the end of life. The Congress’ enthusiasm to fight the Left came a cropper when close allies like M. Karunanidhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav said that they were not for elections and could even break with the UPA on the issue.
Coincidentally just as the UPA relationship was hitting the nadir, the Sangh Parivar got out of its trough. Confronted with the possibility of general elections, the RSS and BJP sorted out their differences in quick time and formally anointed L.K. Advani as the leader of the party. This came with the important electoral victory of the party in Gujarat, and then Himachal. There has been a great deal of hand-wringing and analysis over the BJP’s success and the Congress’ defeat.
But not many have considered asking as to why the average voter in Gujarat and Himachal, even if they were no votaries of Hindutva, would have voted for the Congress. First, the advocates of anti-communal politics had muddled their message by associating with a range of BJP rebels, some who were no less communal than Narendra Modi. Second, the sight of the great anti-communal warriors fighting each other to death on the specious issue of “American imperialism”, would not have been the most reassuring for a voter.
Having humiliated the Congress, the Left could hardly expect it to look tall and fight the BJP in Gujarat. Purely coincidentally, these developments came at the very time that the Left got the worst drubbing of its recent political life on the Nandigram issue where, among others, it confronted the Jamiat-ul-ulema-e-Hind, the powerful organisation of Muslim clerics.
So here we are at the beginning of 2008, surveying the ruins of a once proud alliance and wondering whether it can be put together again. With elections just a year or so away, the Congress and its allies, which includes the Left, must ask the question: Just what have they achieved in the past three years? On what basis should the people vote for them the next time around?
True, the UPA has given us a stable government whose record is not marred by a Gujarat-type pogrom; its competent handling of foreign relations has enhanced India’s standing in the world. But economic growth has come on its own, or at least, without any significant government intervention, and despite the best efforts of the Left to sabotage it. Let’s not tarry on the still cooking nuclear deal. What about the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme? According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, it is not working. The government has hardly shown itself as an exceptional protector of the country, or a fighter against communal violence.
This is not to say that the condition of the other parties is any better. The coming year will see a bonfire of the vanities of other political formations as well. The BJP may send out its new poster-boy Narendra Modi to sup with Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, but it remains to be seen whether he gets the same kind of reception with Chandrababu Naidu or Nitish Kumar. Nandigram has yet to play itself out, not so much in terms of Mamta Banerji’s antics, but the alienation of the Muslim community from the Left.
Both the Congress and the BJP have been out of the Uttar Pradesh playing field and they don’t know how to get back on. The Congress’ chosen method is throwing sops that elude the targets and land up in the pockets of middle-men; as for the BJP, it is whistling in the dark hoping that Sethusamudram will do for them what the Ram Mandir did not. Turning up the communal temperature by using terrorism as the issue remains its most visible option.
Almost all political formations, barring Mayawati, want elections to take place at their assigned time in the first half of 2009. But that may not be possible. After its political mugging by the Left, the UPA does not look like it has the stamina to carry on for another year. If it does try, it could make the situation worse for itself. So, patchwork solutions are being attempted. In the coming weeks the Congress and the Left will try to pretend that their no-holds-barred battle never happened. Pranab Mukherjee’s declaration that the Congress would itself not like to proceed with a deal minus the Left’s support could be the beginning of an effort to revive the coalition. The effort would be to forget the August-December 2007 period.
There are straws in the wind to suggest that the Congress will again surprise the Left with a draft IAEA safeguards agreement that meets their somewhat extravagant demands. The Left will have the opportunity to reconsider. In the meantime, Mr. Karat may speak of the new Third Front and the Congress may dream of a modified UPA with Mulayam Singh, but time is not on their side.
As they confront the next general election, the future course of our political parties will be shaped by habit and vanities, rather than any deterministic unfolding of events. Choices exercised now could still make a difference, but just about.
This article was published in Mail Today January 16, 2008