Ever since it returned to power a fortnight ago, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has not set a foot wrong. Though surprised by the margin of victory, the Congress did not lose time in hitting its stride. It also helped that key opposition parties are in disarray.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Congress approaches the first day of the 15th Lok Sabha with enormous self-confidence. A key factor, if it is to have its way in government and meet the expectations that have been stoked in the past two weeks. It may, I suspect, be also riding on the momentum generated by its electoral performance, moving in for the political kill and portraying itself as a party beyond challenge, at least at the national level. It should be careful what it wishes for.
If inspired leaks from the Congress are to be believed, then the Lok Sabha will have its first woman speaker in Meira Kumar. Daughter of the late Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram, she has all the politically correct social specs—a woman and a Dalit—that will win her the job and the Congress party crucial brownie points. In one move it would have seized the next big initiative on the political agenda. The Congress has already, in the course of the last five years as well as in this general election, claimed the mantle of being a champion of the downtrodden.
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At the same time, it has assiduously worked on protecting its pro-reforms image, so critical for the new middle class of India, and to ensure that foreign funds continue to flow into the economy. The salute by the stock markets in the two weeks since 16 May, when the election results were declared, has guaranteed that the middle class has cause to smile once again. The calibrated pro-reform remarks of members of the new cabinet, such as Murli Deora, Anand Sharma, Jairam Ramesh and Kapil Sibal, as reported in Mint on 30 May, ensure that the bourses will continue to fire on all cylinders. Even better, the national income data released on Friday suggests that the worst may be behind the economy. Now, the Congress has a chance to add to its political repertoire.
As a follow-up, most certainly, the long pending Women’s Reservation Bill, which several governments since 1996 have been unable to legislate, despite avowed support, will be revived by the Congress and probably passed very early by this Parliament. This would reserve a third of the seats in Parliament as well as state assemblies for women.
If it indeed does so, then the Congress would have staked its claim to another key political constituency—women—in the country. And since this is caste-neutral, the Congress would have made an appeal across caste and class divides. Women are a very powerful electoral constituency that no single political party has been able to tap as yet.
Earlier this year, a key person in the inner circle in the campaign team of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani had in an informal conversation said that a similar reservation for women in Panchayats, or village councils, had completely transformed social polity at the grassroots.
In the process, the Congress would have usurped all key agendas as its own. It cannot really be faulted for nurturing a killer instinct, especially at a time when, inspired by Rahul Gandhi, party general secretary and heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, it has embarked on a process to revive the party. The opposition is at its weakest and hence temptation hard to resist. However, if it looked long term, it would be careful. The shell-shocked BJP is still picking up the pieces, while UPA’s former ally and now critic, the Left, is coming to terms with a new reality, which if it finds fruition could lead to the installation of its bete noire, Mamata Banerjee, as the next chief minister of West Bengal when the state goes to the polls in 2011.
While both political formations have extremist elements in them, they can broadly be defined as moderate forces. Their decimation will inevitably boost the extremist elements within and at the same time create a political vacuum. Capital Calculus, published in Mint on 23 February, argued in the context of the Sri Rama Sene attacks on women in Mangalore that such a situation will be exploited by extremist fringe groups, which derive their strength from very reactionary and populist claims. Unlike fringe groups, political parties such as the BJP and the Left have huge organizational capabilities and hence hijacking their leadership has the potential to transform extremist intention into a very potent force.
We are already getting glimpses of this trend in the emergence of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) under the ultra-right wing leadership of Raj Thackeray. Its presence contributed in no small measure to the 0-7 verdict suffered by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in Mumbai. If this trend is sustained, then the next election will see MNS, riding on its Marathi Manoos slogan, emerge as a force at the expense of the Shiv Sena-BJP. Consequently, the scope for dialogue would diminish even faster.
In a rapidly changing India, accompanied by rising popular aspirations, it is impossible to predict emerging contours. To preserve the country’s political and economic unity, moderation is the need of the hour. Clearly, the odds of a political bet in new India have undefined downside risks.
It will be interesting to see whether the Congress will prefer to win a battle to lose a war or for the obverse.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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