THE MOST decisive issue of these elections is marked by an absence. No one considers it an issue worth discussing. It may not affect even a single vote. Yet, the Indo-US nuclear deal, having already determined the shape of alliances going into the polls—nothing else could have given rise to the motley Third Front—could well decide what the next government will look like
So far, most poll surveys and political observers agree on the size and shape of the separate pieces that will make up the post-poll jigsaw. It is just that no one quite knows how to put them together. Let’s take a look at the numbers the Lok Sabha election could throw up. The incumbent Congress seems likely to end up with 150-160 seats and its main opponent the BJP with 130-140 seats. Stack up the Left, shrunk but still significant with a tally closer to 40 than 50, and it seems clear that in the race to achieve a parliamentary majority of 272, the best bet is a government that includes both the Congress and Left.
A continuation of the current arrangement, after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was bailed out by Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP) last July, when the Left withdrew its support to it, does not seem feasible now. On current ebb and flow calculations, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will make gains at the SP’s expense, and she is unlikely to back any government that does not accommodate her own prime ministerial ambition, of which she has left little ambiguity.
That leaves two viable options for government formation, failing which we might as well start preparing for another election. The third possibility examined here, a BJP government, is an extremely long shot at best.
DEAL OR NO DEAL
IN retrospect,” confesses a senior Congressman, “I don’t think the party should have taken such a stand on the nuclear deal. It was certainly not worth breaking with the Left over such an issue. And it is only after their place was taken by the Samajwadi Party that we realised how reasonable they were as allies. The SP had a fresh list of demands every day, most of them preposterous. I think they were responsible for the Prime Minister’s heart troubles!”
Of course, the Congressman quoted here has been one of the strongest opponents of an alliance with the SP in the latter’s homeground Uttar Pradesh. But even after discounting this bias, his words more or less sum up the view of many in the Congress. Unfortunately, there is no going back. It now depends on two individual leaders. If it was all about Manmohan Singh and Prakash Karat at the time of the split, now it will be all about Sonia Gandhi and Prakash Karat.
Sonia Gandhi has upped the ante on behalf of Manmohan Singh, making it clear that he will be the PM in a Congress-led government. Her two children Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have reiterated this, and so strongly that Congressmen admit that it is no longer a negotiable issue. But if all else fails, there may yet be a way for Sonia Gandhi to relieve her party of this stance—Manmohan Singh’s heart could play the graceful rescue act, necessitating a replacement at the top.
That would open the betting within the Congress all over again, abound as it does with senior leaders who would be only too glad to toss their Nehru caps into the ring at the slightest nod (or presumed nod) from Sonia Gandhi. Will that nod ever come? The caps may just be too many, and Rahul Gandhi may have to step forth to resolve this amidst loud urging and resounding applause from these very contenders.
But long before it comes to that, Comrade Karat can expect to come under intense pressure. And have plenty to ponder. He may have categorically ruled out any possible support to a Congress government the very day after Manmohan Singh suggested a patch-up, but his CPM colleague and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lost no time in declaring the Left open to the idea. With Karat’s authority over the CPM’s party units suffering an erosion, and with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool giving it headaches in a tie-up with the Congress in West Bengal, Karat might have to relent. For him, there is also the question of Left solidarity to consider. His CPI counterpart, AB Bardhan, is also facing unhappy murmurs within his party for adhering too closely to the CPM’s stance on supporting the Congress-led government.
Even greater force may be brought to bear by other constituents of the Third Front, which would want a viable government put in place, lest another election follows and it gets the blame for all the instability.
Clearly, the scenario is still fluid enough for both Sonia Gandhi and Prakash Karat. But then, brinkmanship has its own logic. It is what had led to the split in the first place.
FREE FOR ALL
Prakash Karat may be banking on a Third Front government propped up by the Congress, but Rahul Gandhi believes that his party is better off with an opposition role in such a scenario. At 38, Rahul Gandhi is willing to wait, while he goes about reviving the party in UP and Bihar. Congress elders are uncomfortable with this, some seeing it as a dereliction of responsibility at this juncture, but may have no choice but to go along with the plan.
It is this stance of the Congress that rules out several other options, such as a Congress government backed by the BSP instead of the Left. Also, Mayawati knows that if the Left and Congress fail to come together, she stands a realistic chance of being PM if she refuses to back anyone else for the post. The numbers for such a scenario depend on the performance of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is all too willing to join such a formation.
Pawar will have no compunctions breaking from the UPA, and his ten-odd seats should be enough to ensure that this alliance born out of necessity adds up to the 272 mark. Whatever else this government may deliver, it will certainly yield much for the media to write about. The presence of both Jayalalithaa and Mayawati in the Cabinet should make for very interesting times, given that they have already started off on the wrong note with Jaya giving a Mayawati-hosted function for the Third Front a miss.
ADVANI’S LAST BATTLE
This is a real possibility only if the BJP emerges as the single largest party. This outcome does not have a high likelihood. Advani may be right when he says that the BJP “will come up with excellent results in a number of states, including Maharashtra, Bihar, MP, Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Assam...”; most of these are states where the BJP is locked in a straight fight with the Congress. But these are precisely the states where the Congress was decimated in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. If anything, trends indicate that the Congress will gain in these states over its 2004 tally.
More realistically, the numbers will look like the scenario offered in Option II, but without the NCP on board. Even election outcome bookies believe that the numbers are not in the BJP’s favour this time, an assessment that appears to find reflection in its own inner-party dynamics. The BJP’s second-rung leadership is already jockeying for power within the party. These are players who are already looking beyond this Lok Sabha election to the end of the Advani era.
There are many contenders for party leadership, but the better placed ones are Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Narendra Modi and a dark horse, Shivraj Chauhan. Of course, Rajnath Singh and Jaswant Singh both believe they are very much in the running.
Arun Jaitley’s battle with Rajnath Singh, however, could have them both nullifying each other’s influence. For a party looking to hold on to the few allies it has, Narendra Modi would be a divisive choice, even if he has a prominent role in galvanising the cadres. Under the current circumstances, this election should see Sushma Swaraj anointed heir apparent in the BJP, but in the long run, the odds on Shivraj Chauhan could start shortening. He has the confidence of the RSS that is always needed to emerge as a force in the BJP, but has done little so far that could alienate potential allies.
Surprise PMs shouldn’t shock anyone any more. Who, after all, would have foreseen Manmohan Singh as PM five years ago? But then, who could have predicted that an Indo-US deal on nuclear power could end up yielding the possibility of a Dalit PM?