On 23 July, a day after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government pulled off a win in the crucial trust vote, political commentaries were writing epitaphs of the Left parties, whose exit from the government over differences on the India-US civil nuclear deal had precipitated the crisis in the first place.
Ilustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Similarly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had pushed hard for the defeat of the UPA under the leadership of L.K. Advani, looked lost. The Congress party, on the other hand, having showcased its heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, in the debate that preceded the trust vote, seemed to have acquired fresh legs.
Inevitably, the blame for the Left’s loss was laid at the door of Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, general secretary Prakash Karat, who had steadfastly declined to climb down from a position that threatened the UPA’s survival and looked like it would strengthen the electoral prospects of the BJP.
However, with less than three months to go for the general election, the circumstances stand substantially transformed. The country has undergone a dramatic shift in the economic outlook largely in sync with what is happening in the rest of the world. Layoffs are on the rise and a lot of people who rode the economic boom are beginning to hurt. The terror strikes, 13 in the seven months ended in December, has only made the outlook murkier.
And unlike ever before, the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha throw up some unique circumstances. Delimitation has recognized the growing population in urban India. As a result, a little less than one in five members of the Lok Sabha will represent an urban constituency, a significant jump from the past.
According to IIMS Dataworks, an associate of research and consulting firm Invest India Economic Foundation Pvt. Ltd, 40% of the voters will be below the age of 30. Not only do they have aspirations, but they are demanding and are conscious of their rights.
Further, this election is being contested in the context of an unprecedented growth in electronic and new media, largely concentrated in urban areas. India had about 347 million mobile phone users (including fixed wireless phone) at the end of December, and according to a study done by Crayons, the ad agency that will manage the advertising strategy for the Congress, nearly 60% of the mobile users are first-time voters; the country also has around 49 million Internet users. Clearly, control of airwaves and mastery of new media would be critical in niche constituencies.
Politically, the BJP, which at one stage last year had looked all set to return to power, is struggling. Similarly, the Congress, despite pulling off a surprise win in the state elections in Delhi, seems bereft of direction. By contrast, the Left parties, notwithstanding the internal divisions in the CPM’s Kerala unit, have not only survived doomsayers but also gone a step further and tied up key alliances in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—two states that account for 81 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Seen against this backdrop, two political personalities—Karat and Advani—hold the key to the future polity. And, indirectly the fortunes of the Congress are closely linked to the outcome of the battle of these two adversaries. So far, it is only the Left parties that have established a clear offensive strategy and in this Karat’s imprimatur cannot be missed.
At the moment, he has painted the bold vision of a third front—an idea which, incidentally was laughed off the stage six months ago—bereft of the Congress and the BJP.
The accepted political maxim is that any serious bid to form a government at the Centre requires a political combination to win majority of the seats in one of the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Bihar. So far, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has declined any formal pre-poll alliance but at the same time signalled its in-principle willingness to be part of a third front.
Since the BJP and the Congress are a mere peripheral force in this state, the political contest in Uttar Pradesh is likely to be largely a face-off between the BSP and the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
At present, the Left parties have 61 representatives in the Lok Sabha. Given the internal divisions in the Kerala unit of the CPM as well as possible political fallouts of the Singur and Nandigram agitations, this tally will be reduced. However, the alliances that the Left bloc has sewn up with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Telengana Rashtra Samiti in Andhra Pradesh and with J. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu are expected to make good this shortfall.
The so-called third front expects the BSP to win at least 50% of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, putting it within striking distance of 150 seats.
The key to the BJP’s success, on the other hand, is to successfully shake off its tag of being the “untouchable” and cobble together a stronger National Democratic Alliance. In addition, Advani needs to move fast to overcome internal dissensions and challenges.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, a key member of the core group in the BJP driving Advani’s campaign, wrote in his weekly column in The Indian Express on 1 February: “The BJP, on the other hand, carries the historical handicap of not being in the reckoning at all in several big states. Further, it has also squandered away precious time in the Opposition battling internal problems rather than on presenting an attractive alternative agenda of governance and development. It should at least learn from its own recent debacle in the Delhi Assembly election that the voters are not interested in hearing only negative propaganda about the incumbent government. They want to know: ‘How will you be different?’ There is very little time for the BJP to answer that question.”
If this loss in momentum is a matter of concern, worse news for the BJP is that it has lost what was its one time edge: being tough on terror.
Much will depend on the ability of 81-year-old Advani to galvanize the party and the cadre in the next few months. Not only would a poor performance impact the leadership of Advani, it may also spell the end of the NDA in its present form.
However, if the BJP is able to substantially improve on its 2004 tally of 138 seats, though it stands depleted at 113 seats at present, and hence bring the NDA within striking distance of power, there is a strong likelihood that it may be able to wean away some constituents of the third front.
Clearly, the Congress stands to benefit if Karat’s strategy falters or Advani is unable to deliver. In 2004, it was the beneficiary of the losses two key NDA allies, the TDP and AIADMK, suffered in their respective states. Will history repeat itself?
Anil Padmanabhan is the Delhi bureau chief of Mint.