The first phase of the election process has settled. Alliances have been rejigged or abandoned, candidates for the first phase more or less decided, manifestoes rolled out. Not surprisingly, all parties are for the aam admi, independent foreign policy and the war against terrorism. Now, all eyes are down for the race itself to begin. Even now, if someone can tell you which way the wind is blowing, he or she would be lying. Confusion reigns supreme.
But not confidence. The Congress party for one is appearing to be almost cocky in the manner with which it has gone about dealing with allies and potential partners in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Third Front matches the Congress in its cockiness, but we all know they are whistling in the dark. As for the BJP, it has a somewhat dazed look, perhaps temporary and occasioned by the public spat of its senior leaders.
There is clearly a method in the madness of the Congress, and only the first family of the party is probably privy to it. But we can surmise that it is aimed at rebuilding the party, ground-up. Heir presumptive Rahul Gandhi’s “discover India” tour has finally yielded a strategy. Or, so we think.
At some point of time or the other, the Congress party would have had to do what it is doing in these two states. Otherwise it was confronted with the task of being whittled down to extinction. That the Rashtriya Janata Dal was willing to offer the party only three seats for the Bihar alliance, one less than that offered in 2004, was a pointer to that direction. However, what was counter-intuitive was that the Congress party drove its UP and Bihar negotiations so hard that they eventually broke.
Evidence from the ground suggests that the ability to forge pre-poll alliances was the key to the NDA winning the 1998/99 general elections and the United Progressive Alliance getting ahead in 2004. Analysts said that the key to the Congress party’s success in 2004 was that it contested only 417 seats in 2004, 36 less than it had done in the election before. Because of this, though the Congress lost a little of its vote share, it did increase its vote-share per constituency. But for the BJP, the trend was in the opposite direction — it lost its vote-share as well as the vote-share per constituency.
According to the Centre for the Studies of Democratic Societies, since 1996, the electorate has gotten used to coalition governments.But notwithstanding the victory of the NDA and then the UPA, there has been no dramatic change in the broad votes and seats of alliance parties. The BJP’s tally went down from 182 to 138 and that of the Congress rose to 145 from 114 in 2004. But their regional allies were not able to cash in on this and expand their geographical spread. The Samajwadi Party which contested 234 seats did well, but it remained confined to UP. The Bahujan Samaj Party increased its vote-share to over 5 per cent, but its core remained in UP. Likewise the Left had its best showing with 61 MPs, but, they too remained in their traditional base of West Bengal and Kerala.
If the Congress party has taken the position it has with regard to its allies, the BJP’s situation is somewhat more complicated. It has been abandoned by three allies—the BJD and its key supporter, the Telegu Desam Party and the AIADMK. In the 2004 elections the allies fared much worse than the BJP. Some, like the TDP, attributed it to the loss of support from Muslim voters who abandoned the party because of its ties with the BJP.Y.S. Rajshekhar Reddy Andhra Chief Minister blows the conch-shell to launch his party campaign in Andhra Pradesh
There are a number of new parties testing the waters. But more significant is the manner in which older parties are altering their trajectories. The Congress has decided on a new model alliance system, one in which its partners do not grow at its expense and whose corollary is the party’s aim at regaining its dominant status in the country's polity.
The BJP is pushing ahead in its post-Gujarat mode politics. The effort to become an umbrella party, attractive to all faiths and communities, seems to have been abandoned. It was just the other day that the now-disgraced party president Bangaru Laxman declared that the Muslims were the blood of our blood. Today the party bends over backward to embrace Varun Gandhi whose USP seems to be an abusive attitude towards the country's minorities.
Mayawati’s BSP is attempting a new all-India formula by approaching the upper castes along with her Uttar Pradesh Dalit base. This election will test that sarvajana model and take the party into what would be largely uncharted waters or run it aground.
This time around, there are some significant regional parties testing the waters in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Older parties, too, are coming up with new identities. The Biju Janata Dal tests the waters minus its BJP ally; the RJD and the LJP are in the curious position of being with the UPA government in the centre going into election 2009, but opposing the Congress party in Bihar in those coming elections. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U), too, seems to be on the cusp of a change.
The Third Front, too, is a new manifestation though of an old tendency. But it lacks the certitude of those years. Today, even its proponents do not see it anything more than a waiting room for strong regional parties— and this includes the Left. As it stands, the outfit is neither a United Front where the Left is the dominant partner, nor a Popular Front where a non-Left formation leads. Sonia Gandhi is right when she says that the Third Front has as many prime ministerial aspirants as leaders.
Election 2009 is bound to establish new paradigms. But the creation will not be the outcome of the personality of one person or a party, but the political and economic dynamics of the past two decades.
Clearly, all the parties see themselves, or are being forced to, function in an era of change. In the Ganga belt, the caste passions of the past seem to have wilted. Caste leaders like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav may still matter, but their era is over. Mayawati’s sarvajan samaj is aimed at overcoming the self-imposed limitations of caste politics.
As the country slowly becomes more literate, better-linked through road, rail and telecommunications, there are common issues that affect everyone. Some arise from the breaking of old social barriers, others from the creation of newer ones. Others from the very process of economic growth and steady urbanisation.
Cable TV has generated its own powerful dynamic which is able to make a minor issue in one part of the country, a major development elsewhere, as was seen in the case of Pramod Muthalik and Raj Thackeray’s fulminations.
The elections are also taking place in a period of profound economic change. On the surface in India, things appear normal. We have not faced the mass housing loan defaults that have pushed people out of their homes, catastrophic unemployment has struck only some sectors like the diamond polishing industry or textiles.
But the election outcome— unless the voters are remarkably prescient— could be based on the verities of the past, instead of the realities of today. This could consign us to a limbo of sorts for some years.
This is time we cannot afford to waste because of the enormous demands and expectations of our overwhelmingly young population. In this sense the slogan we see on Mr L.K. Advani’s posters is right, we do need a strong and decisive government.
This appeared in Mail Today March 26, 2009