With the general election just a year away and the talk of early elections not yet completely receding—notwithstanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s statements to the contrary last week—the UPA’s search for new allies and potent election issues have begun in right earnest.
Alarmed by the spate and scale of the party’s defeats in successive state assembly polls, the Congress has put into motion a recovery plan to return to power in the next general election.
On top of the party’s agenda is an attempt to rope in one of the two principal players, namely the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP), as an alliance partner in Uttar Pradesh, where the party came a cropper in last year’s assembly polls, despite its leadership’s best efforts. Aligning with either of the two parties, the party reckons, would give it a huge advantage.
The Congress party has made an offer to have an all India alliance with the BSP in which the Congress would contest just 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh and the BSP, the remaining 60 seats.
An alliance with the BSP would help the Congress party in arresting a dent in the party’s Dalit vote bank. However, BSP leader Mayawati is not in favour of this and her refusal to ally with the Congress could upset its electoral calculations in many states.
Now, the Congress is making frantic efforts to ally with the SP. The SP is not a natural alliance partner for the Congress as their relations have been marred by mutual suspicion and acrimony.
The differences between the two parties are so sharp that their rivalries extend well beyond the political arena and deep into the corporate world and even Bollywood.
The SP is the anchor of the ‘third front’, grandly christened the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA).
The Left Front (LF) also has plans to join the ‘third front’ later, either during or after Lok Sabha polls, to forge an alternative to the Congress-led UPA. Roping in the SP into the UPA fold would eclipse the potential of the UNPA’s third front as an alternative to the Congress-led UPA.
Even as the Congress is exploring a tie-up with the SP, there are reports that a section of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership favours an alliance with Mayawati. If both the SP and the BSP join forces with the Congress and the BJP, respectively, Uttar Pradesh may see a straight contest in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls after many decades.
However, it is early days yet as mercurial Mayawati and wily Mulayam know how to upstage their friends and foes alike in a bid to extract their pound of flesh.
Apart from piggybacking on allies, the Congress can hope to return to power only if it performs well in its strongholds. Weighed against this possibility is the past record of Union governments that lasted their full terms in office over the past two decades.
None of them—in 1989, 1996 and 2004—has been returned to power. Can the UPA buck the trend? That seems to be the moot question on the mind of the UPA leadership.
With farm loan waivers and raising of income-tax exemption limits, the Congress party has given itself a few campaign themes so that it can face the electorate with confidence. Coming as they do in an election year, these sops suffer from a lack of credibility. Populism sans credibility is seen as election gimmickry and seldom gives electoral dividends.
The ruling regime is hopeful that the loan waver scheme and its failed flagship programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) and Bharat Nirman can win it the votes of the rural electorate. Whether the loan waiver scheme, on which the Congress is pinning high hopes, delivers votes will be seen only when the scheme is implemented.
One negative factor that could play havoc with the UPA’s prospects in the next elections is galloping inflation. It seems that the UPA leadership is no longer seized of the issue and has dropped its guard.
High prices, especially of essential commodities, is a potent issue and has led to the fall of many a government in the past. Owing to this factor, the UPA, which did exceptionally and unexpectedly well in urban and metropolitan constituencies in the 2004 elections, is likely to face setbacks in the next general election.
The UPA needs a strong salience issue to go to the urban electorate. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal, if packaged well, may appeal to a section of the urban electorate. Would the Congress take a gamble and stake the next general election on the nuke deal?
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org