Monday, May 9, 2011

Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard Magazine/May 08, 2011

When Home Minister P Chidambaram quite confidently told me “Let us wait for May 13,” the day when the counting of votes for the five Assembly elections takes place, he sounded quite confident about the verdict. It wasn’t just an off-the-cuff remark. It came from a home minister who thinks twice before speaking even once. He was predicting a clean sweep for the Congress.
After an hour-long interview — the first given to a media organisation since the election process began — Chidambaram defined the contours of post-election politics. As the home minister, he has access to umpteen sources, known and unknown, as well as credible and discredited sources of information. He was also one of the star campaigners for his party in most pollbound states. From his body language, it was evident that he felt the civil society movement against corruption, coupled with the detention of former ministers and Congressmen, wouldn’t affect the party’s credibility with the masses. Though he didn’t elaborate, it was obvious that the Congress was expecting a surge to power in the company of its allies in West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry and Kerala but perhaps not Tamil Nadu. An opinion poll, however, conducted by a TV channel predicted a victory for the DMK alliance and further boosted the UPA’s morale. A Congress win in four states will not only change the tone and tenor of the political discourse in the country, but will also make the party much more arrogant and intolerant as both an ally and an adversary.

Chidambaram’s confidence was reflected later in the aggressive posturing of Congress leaders against PAC chairman Murali Manohar Joshi. For the past few weeks, the Congress party has been on the offensive against its opponents in every part of the country. Over half-adozen cabinet ministers led by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal have not missed a single opportunity to take their adversaries head-on. Even the discreet Vayalar Ravi, the Union Civil Aviation Minister and former trade union leader, decided to teach agitating Indian Airlines pilots the lesson of a lifetime, ignoring a possible adverse impact on the party’s electoral prospects.

The Congress is betting on regaining its lost moral authority once the state elections results come in. For the past one year, the UPA has been at the receiving end of national and Opposition disapproval. Many of its leaders, including a chief minister, lost their jobs over corruption charges. Due to a concerted Opposition attack, even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s credibility was eroded. Sensing the public mood, the Congress High Command didn’t involve him in electioneering. But the UPA is confident that happy days will be back again. Waiting to be armed with a popular mandate, the party is gearing up to tackle its opponents from its newly acquired moral high ground.

On the other hand, all the opposition parties have suddenly lost their bite and shine. The BJP mumbles half-heartedly about forming an AGP-BJP government in Assam. The CPI(M) is demoralised at the prospect of losing both West Bengal and Kerala to the Congress and its allies. If it happens, the Left would be left with only tiny Tripura in its kitty for the first time in three decades. The Congress party’s buoyant mood stems from the massive turnout of voters in all the five states. Moreover, the Election Commission was able to contain the misuse of money and state power in all the states. It is for the first time in three decades that the Congress didn’t complain about rigging in the West Bengal elections. With a voter turnout of over 80 per cent — the highest ever since Independence — the party expects the Reds to be reduced to less than 50 seats in West Bengal.
The looming poll verdicts are significant in more than one way. Even if the Congress wins all, its dependence on regional parties for survival at the Centre and ensuring good governance will become much more precarious. The UPA is already a minority government that has survived only thanks to outside support from other parties. With Mamata Banerjee as the chief minister in West Bengal and J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, the UPA government may face a powerful duo who could dictate the national agenda. Even a demoralised DMK may assert itself and demand its pound of flesh. If all of UPA’s allies come together on a common platform, they can make life much more difficult for the prime minister than what he has been facing before the states went to the ballot box.

A visibly victorious Congress may in reality be a helpless one while persuading its allies to push through Parliament various legislations such as labour reform, the Land Acquisition Act, Foreign Direct Investment in retail, the entry of Foreign Universities and environmental issues. Most allies are disinclined to support the Congress on many of the proposed economic reforms. For the Congress, the biggest headache would be to bring all its allies on board to get its nominee elected as the next president of India. The outcome of the Assembly polls will change the complexion of the Electoral College, which is slated to elect the new president in July 2012.

In 2007, the Congress managed to get Pratibha Patil elected only because of the support it got from the Left that had over 60 MPs and controlled two big states. Now the Congress will have to talk to many more parties in order to reach the magic majority number not only in Parliament but also in all the states. The Congress rules only in 12 of the 28 states and seven Union Territories. Having less than a third of the voting strength needed to secure the presidential election, the party will have to walk that extra mile to persuade others to support its candidate. After all, a president neutral or hostile to the Congress will be a cause of discomfiture to a party that will seek to retain its post-election halo. As the 2014 election countdown begins, the Congress will need all the lights on in Rashtrapati Bhavan if it wants to shine.

No comments: