The meeting of eight regional parties last week in Hyderabad was a gathering of “out of power” regional parties in their quest for political relevance. The parties that came together have nothing in common in their economic policies or perspectives to bind them together.
Evidently, they are positioning themselves as a front to enhance their collective bargaining power after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
This is a group that the Left Front was expected to float as a third alternative to the Congress and the BJP. However, in the post-Nandigram scenario, the Left seems to have lost its political morality and nerve, and is also finding itself to be politically vulnerable. By jettisoning the leadership of the front—which it may join later—the Left seems to be proving Mamata Banerjee’s speak that the Left Front is functioning as the “B team” of the Congress.
The line-up of leaders of the new front is impressive. It comprises formidable politicians such as N. Chandrababu Naidu, J. Jayalalithaa and Mulayam Singh Yadav, who have played a pivotal role in national politics in the past. Whether they will stick together until and after the 2009 Lok Sabha polls is a moot point and local factors will determine their behaviour.
Naidu is a liberalizer to the core who pushed economic reforms hard. The reforms and his penchant for information technology cost him heavily at the polls.
Being a pragmatist, he is a chastened man these days. He is trying to resurrect the populist image of the party’s founder and his father-in-law, N.T. Rama Rao, to win the next assembly elections that are slated for 2009.
To reclaim the state of Andhra Pradesh, Naidu is busy formulating pro-poor, pro-farmer policies to stave off his image as a reformer. Whatever policies he formulates for his return to power in the state, he will push the same as the economic agenda of the new front.
Jayalalithaa is a discerning politician, though whimsical and megalomaniacal. She is self-centric and would continue in the front as long as she benefits from it. She would not think twice to dump the front in favour of the Congress if it promises to end M. Karunanidhi’s rule in Tamil Nadu. She is on a comeback trail in the state and perhaps that’s the reason she has been offered the leadership of the front.
Jayalalithaa has pursued sensible economic policies for three years, which, however, led to her party’s rout in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Bitter from that defeat, she vigorously pursued populist policies and regained her popularity. Wily Karunanidhi upstaged her by taking populism to abysmal levels with schemes such as giving free colour television sets.
Mulayam Singh Yadav is the other significant partner in the front who brings much strength to it. Although his party has lost the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, he remains a strong contender and can stage a comeback. Hailing from the country’s most populous state, he can add substantially to the numerical strength of the front.
Economy and electoral dynamics
Interestingly, while governments are often punished for the economy’s poor performance, ruling parties are not necessarily rewarded for a strong economic performance.
A strong economy and a positive “feel good factor” that prevailed at the time of the Lok Sabha elections in 2004—the then ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tried to capitalize on this by its India Shining campaign—could not guarantee electoral success for the A.B. Vajpayee-led government.
This is a trend that is increasingly in evidence even in Western democracies.
There is a strong disconnect between India’s masses and its continuing growth story. While the services and industrial sectors of the economy are galloping, agriculture, which provides sustenance to nearly two-thirds of our population, is languishing.
The good intent of governments seldom translates into implementation. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme launched with much fanfare by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and a favourite scheme of its chairperson Sonia Gandhi, is an example of good intent and poor impact.
Given their assessment that the UPA government is fast losing ground at the Centre and since the NDA is not gaining strength, the new front leaders reckon that the time is opportune for like-minded parties to come together and work out an alternative economic policy as well as a political agenda prior to the next Lok Sabha elections.
The new front has attacked the “wrong and skewed economic policies” of the UPA government for non-inclusive growth, back-breaking inflation affecting the masses and a raw deal to the suffering farmers.
Leaders of the front have also promised to provide every subsidy to the agriculture sector to help farmers tide over the agrarian crisis. To achieve all these, the front has promised an alternative economic agenda that would address all these concerns.
Whether this motley group of regional parties has the wisdom and willingness to proffer an alternative people-centric economic agenda is a question which has no ready answers. That will determine the success of the new front.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a researchand consulting firm. Your comments on this Monday column, which will alternate between the intersection of business and politics, and pure politics, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org