Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What the electoral tea leaves say

By now it should be clear that the general elections are not around the corner. If there were any lingering doubts, they have been dispelled by the Union Budget.
It was neither here nor there, but it was certainly not a populist Budget, which is usually a harbinger of elections.
The Congress will have to show uncommon courage were it to call an election after socking it to the middle class who will have to pay more to even visit the neighbouring Barista. 


This is a group whose support has been the foundation of the Congress party's performance in 2004-2008, and by common agreement, it is the group that is now disenchanted with the party.
A year, for that is what now broadly remains for the scheduled date of the next general elections, is a long time in politics.
The Congress party, no doubt, wishes that it were longer.
Just as it had managed to stabilise the political situation last autumn and shown a great flurry of activity in pressing ahead with permitting FDI in retail and then hanging Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru in quick succession, it found the ground under its feet slipping with the sudden emergence of the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal and Chidambaram's indifferent Budget reflects the return to the Congress normal of pusillanimity.


No matter what Saint Antony the defence minister says, something remains rotten in Denmark.
We know that €51 million have been charged extra for the 12 helicopters, but what we need to know is why that has happened and who has received those moneys.
The Tyagis, as one writer has pointed out, are red herrings who have, at best managed some Euros in the hundred thousands, but there appear to be some people who have got the money in tens of millions.
Who are they ? The first part of the Congress strategy now rests in the hope that public memory tends to be short.
An AgustaWestland AW101 medium-lift helicopter
Given the many scandals we have been deluged with - the CWG scams, the 2G scandal, the National Rural Health Mission scam of UP and so on - they hope that people will forget the trifling matter of €51 million.
So, in quick order, the government has proactively insisted on a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the issue.
Given the way the JPC for 2G is working, you can be sure that the helicopter matter will soon be buried in a mountain of words and chicanery.
The second part rests on the hope that with inflation down, the economy will pick up in the coming months and year and bring in a touch of the "feel-good" factor on the eve of the elections, which must take place by May 2014.
A lot of the hope, of course, rests on the figures that the government has itself conjured up.
While no sensible person would want the economy to tank so as to celebrate the schadenfreude of a possible election loss of the Congress, it is a fact that nothing in the numbers at this juncture provides any room for comfort.
It is true, of course, that economic forecasting using current statistics is notoriously difficult since the figures never quite catch the moment when things go up, rather than down.
But, to be brutally honest, in recent times, they have quite distinctly tended to head southwards. 

CBI has named former air chief Tyagi (pictured) and his cousins in AugustaWestland preliminary enquiry
CBI has named former air chief Tyagi (pictured) and his cousins in AugustaWestland preliminary enquiry

The third hope of the ruling party is that the Modi bandwagon may have peaked a tad early.
Were the elections to have been held this summer, the BJP, or to be precise, Mr Modi, may have caught the Congress on the ascendant.
But, to repeat the tired phrase, a year is a long time in politics.
For the famously factious Sangh parivar to keep its act together for one long year may not be an easy task.
The fourth, and this is somewhat of a forlorn hope for the Congress, is that its heir apparent gets his act together in the coming year.
So far, we have been told through carefully managed media exercises that Rahul Gandhi is busy overhauling the organisation.
But to win elections he needs the organisation all right, but he also needs charisma.


The Congress, and this does not really have to be repeated, depends vitally on the Gandhi-Nehru brand to win elections.
So far, unfortunately for the party, young Mr Gandhi has not shown himself to be an election winner.
Indeed, he has not shown himself to be a particularly diligent party worker either.
Not for nothing is he called the "reluctant prince".
Whether he can shed that image in the coming year remains to be seen.
Yet, the Congress, at least, has the benefit of knowing which direction it is heading in terms of social and economic policy.
The internal debates of the past are over and Ms Sonia Gandhi seems to have signed on to Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram's growth plus strategy.


Defence Minister A K Antony has asserted the government's intention to get to the root of the scam
Defence Minister A K Antony has asserted the government's intention to get to the root of the scam

Which is more than you can say for the BJP which, minus Modi, lacks strategy or direction.
Its nattering negativism is apparent every day and in relation to almost any policy or proposal that comes up.
As for the Left, it is yet to recover from Mamata Banerjee, and it is unlikely it will do so as long as its leadership remains unchanged.
Outcomes of general elections more often than not overwhelm the calculations, tawdry or noble, of political parties and their leaders, no matter how carefully triangulated.
And so it will be with the coming general elections.
Just as the last year, the year before, and the year before that, came up with its surprises, you can be sure that the coming year will have its own pitfalls and bombshells, not necessarily all hitting the Congress.
But working on the old battlefield belief, no doubt, the Congress will be hoping that the shells do not strike the same craters again.
- The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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