A fortnight is a long time in politics, so it seems.
Successive election defeats and galloping inflation have pulverized the confidence of the Congress party so much that some of its leaders are wondering aloud if the party will be lucky enough to win 100 seats in the next Lok Sabha polls. Thanks to such pessimism, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is already sounding like a lame duck, almost caretaker government, gripped with more than the usual inertia and policy paralysis.
Sections of the media that were careful not to displease the ruling establishment, seem to have also given up on the UPA’s future and are suddenly critical of Sonia Gandhi’s stewardship of the Congress, conveniently forgetting that the same trademark “indecisive” leadership was what brought the party to power.
In stark contrast, the mood in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp is so upbeat that it has begun behaving like a party already voted back to power. There is intense jostling and lobbying for Lok Sabha seats and leaders have begun eyeing plum portfolios in the “sure to be formed” government. Many sympathizers have also begun lobbying for governorships.
But, as things stand now, none of the coalition alternatives—the Congress-led UPA, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the Samajwadi Party-led United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA)—appears to have the requisite strength to be even within the striking distance of power.
The ruling UPA, which is most vulnerable, will have the biggest challenge in terms of retaining its current allies. Tamil Nadu alliance partner Pattali Makkal Katchi is all set to part ways with the state’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and move towards the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which could change equations dramatically in that state for the UPA. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party is likely to fight Lok Sabha polls either independently or in a tacit understanding with the Janata Dal (United). Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar is keeping all his pre- and post-election options open and will switch sides once he figures out how the political winds are blowing.
Need for tie-ups
The NDA’s biggest problem is that it has no presence whatsoever in many battleground states such as Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In addition, the BJP’s support base has severely shrunk in Uttar Pradesh, where it is looking like a bit player. On its own, the BJP can do very little in states such as Assam and Haryana. Yet, together, these states account for as many as 247 seats.
The NDA desperately needs to strike alliances with potential allies in these states for the BJP to have any chance of returning to power. Some potential allies, such as the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana and Asom Gana Parishad in Assam are, at least for now, rooted in the rival UNPA alliance. For other potential allies such as the Trinamool Congress and the AIADMK, the BJP does not have much to add by way of electoral strength and hence is not an attractive pre-election ally.
The UNPA, which has fancied itself as a third alternative, is proving to be a non-starter. Its principal protagonist, the Samajwadi Party, has not recovered in Uttar Pradesh and may lose half of its present Lok Sabha strength to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the next polls, thus ending up with less than 20 seats.
The Telugu Desam Party, which staged a smart recovery recently in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, is set to improve its strength but, first, will have to contend with internal turmoil over the separate Telengana issue and the long-pending launch of a new party by actor Chiranjeevi.
Meanwhile, the Left Front, which wields a lot of clout in the UPA regime, is likely to see its strength deplete in the next Lok Sabha and may end up well below 50 seats. Come election time, the Left parties are quite likely to append themselves to the UNPA and, in fact, may end up leading it.
While it is way too early, as the political math stands right now, India may be headed for a 2004 kind of verdict—with no pre-election alliance ending up in the vicinity of yielding power on its own. The crucial difference may be that the UPA and the NDA may switch positions, with the NDA being in the lead. How much of a lead the BJP-led NDA will have will depend on its success in expanding the coalition to include a large number of potential allies, particularly from the battleground states.
That brings us to Mayawati and the BSP, both going strong in Uttar Pradesh. Thanks to her continued success in social engineering efforts in the state, the BSP could notch up an impressive 50-plus seats tally in the next Lok Sabha. Thus, in all probability, mercurial Mayawati could then decide who will govern India from 2009, much like the Left Front did in the present Lok Sabha, making her the real kingmaker.
(GVL Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org )