Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terse message that the left parties are free to withdraw support to his government but that the government would not renegotiate the Indo-US civil nuclear deal was uncharacteristic of his demeanour. So far, he has reserved such harsh words only for the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
What prompted the Prime Minister to challenge the Left parties to withdraw support? Is the tough talk meant to silence them or is he trying to create a situation in which the Left parties feel compelled to withdraw support to the government? I am inclined to believe the latter, given that the Congress may be pushing for a mid-term poll to the Lok Sabha.
Political and journalistic circles were agog with rumours during the past week that the country is headed for a snap poll to the Lok Sabha. Against this backdrop, the tough talk delivered by the Prime Minister is hardly surprising. Why does the Congress party want mid-term elections when it is leading a stable coalition? There are several possible reasons for this.
Firstly, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has seen through the left parties’ game plan that they want to lead or cobble together an alternative coalition after the next Lok Sabha elections. They are strengthening regional parties such as the TDP in Andhra Pradesh to weaken the Congress party.
They have formed a caucus involving some regional parties of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition such as the DMK and the NCP and have been successful in stalling Sonia’s plans of installing her first choice for the post of president of India.
Secondly, Sonia perhaps reckons that the time is opportune for a national election as she fears that the party’s political graph may slide in the next couple of years.
Andhra Pradesh figures on the top of Sonia’s concerns, as the party has been steadily losing ground in the state. The state contributed as many as 29 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and success in the state is central to the party’s plans of returning to power at the Centre.
The party’s assessment seems to be that an early election can help stem the tide.
Another state which is bothering the Congress is Maharashtra, where the party’s own internal assessment is dismal. The party has reopened the long forgotten Srikrishna Commission report with many political objectives: to drive a wedge between the NCP and the Shiv Sena and prevent them from coming together, to convince the minorities that cosying up to the Shiv Sena in the presidential elections was only a tactical necessity, and to allay their apprehensions that the Congress party is pro-American.
The Congress leadership is already frightened that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) may harm its poll prospects. After her phenomenal success in Uttar Pradesh, BSP leader Mayawati has further consolidated her support in the state.
Mayawati has chalked out mega plans to go national. A large number of prominent leaders of various parties and caste groups are in touch with Mayawati and have offered to work with her. Mayawati is sounding alarm bells in the Congress which fears that it could lose the Dalit vote to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in a number of states. Without this, the Congress would become highly vulnerable. An early election to the Lok Sabha, the Congress leadership calculates, will contain the damage the BSP can do. Despite all the above threats, Sonia Gandhi perhaps sees a huge opportunity in the BJP’s internal leadership crisis. With no clear line of command and weighed down by heavy anti-incumbency in the party ruled states of Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP hardly seems battle-ready and the Congress wants to cash in on the opportunity.
A third possible reason for early elections is that Sonia Gandhi wants a fresh mandate so that she can don the mantle of prime minister with popular support. Now that the election to the office of the president of India is over and she has successfully installed one of her loyalists in office, she perhaps wants to give prime ministership a fresh shot. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor her party ever said that she would not seek the office in future.
The Prime Minister’s provocative statement is unlikely to force the Left parties to withdraw support to his government as they have not yet recovered from the aftershocks of Nandigram. In their own internal assessment, the Left parties are likely to reduce their tally in the Lok Sabha from the present 61 to about 40 seats if mid-term elections are held now. The Trinamool Congress’ reported warming up to the Congress—as evident from the reports that the party’s MPs voted for the UPA’s vice-presidential candidate—may further create jitters in the Left front.
It is difficult to predict whether and when mid-term elections will he held. After all, the Congress and the Left parties need a valid justification for pushing the nation into a midterm poll. Until they find a suitable contentious issue, the political brinkmanship and posturing will continue.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm in New Delhi. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org