The Bottom Line | What will Congress show for seeking a fresh poll?

The Bottom Line | What will Congress show for seeking a fresh poll?

The statement of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi dubbing the Left parties as enemies of progress makes it absolutely clear that India is headed for mid-term polls. It was in this column, I had predicted this as far back as 16 April (“Does falling inflation mean winter LS polls?") and on 13 August (“Is India headed for a mid-term election?"), much before even most Congressmen were aware of their leadership’s plans.

What appears to have begun as something that the Congress party-led UPA was pushed into—possible early elections to the Lok Sabha—increasingly seems like a calibrated attempt by the Congress leadership to benefit from what it perceives as a good time to go back to the voters, buoyed by a series of opinion polls that show the UPA enjoying a significant lead over rivals in the past 10 months.

But, what issues will the Congress use in seeking a fresh mandate? A successful nuclear deal with the US doesn’t work for the party given the esoteric nature of the agreement and the rather long-range benefits for the average voter. Plus it is something that can easily turn on its head as in making the Congress party look like it is in the American camp. Focusing on the “Bush is our best friend" theme is sure to drive away minorities voters in hordes into the fold of other non-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) parties. The anathema toward US President George Bush among Indian Muslims is strong and the Congress party’s overt attempts to woo them through Sachar Committee-led sops could easily backfire, especially if seen as just election-eve gimmicks.

Nor can the Congress talk about the Left’s objections to implementing a slew of economic reforms that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted the government to initiate, for the common man is either not bothered about some of them (like say pension reforms) or is concerned about the impact of others, such as foreign direct investment in, say, retailing.

The party will thus be forced to highlight its record in governance over the last three years and seek a fresh and bigger mandate to run a stable government at the Centre. This gamble hasn’t worked for the BJP, which similarly believed that it had an unmatched record in governance in 2004. I wonder if it will work for the Congress.

From the perspective of the average voter, there is little that the UPA government has done that would merit broad admiration and, more importantly, an automatic vote for another five years. Even as those in the government point to low inflation, the inflation in food items is a real and serious issue. And well-intended programmes, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme for rural wage labourers, has worked in pockets and is generally riddled with rampant corruption and irregularities in many states.

Despite all these negatives, if the government has done very well in popular ratings and opinion polls over the last year, it is mainly on two counts: stability of the regime and Singh’s non-controversial and gentle nature. Now, the party seems determined to demolish its success on both fronts.

Seeking a fresh mandate due to its irreconcilable differences with the Left parties, irrespective of who caused it, is an admission that the party has not yet perfected the art of running coalition governments. It will be throwing away all the gains it has made in the last three years of managing a relatively stable coalition. What is worse for it is the change in the tone of the Left parties, who are trying to sound less shrill and more “reasonable" and “accommodative" without however, diluting their stand. The more reasonable they sound, the greater will be the Congress’ misery, as it will be seen to be solely responsible for inducing early elections.

Indian voters, despite their growing penchant for coalitions, loathe instability and seldom spare those stoking it. BJP’s ascendancy to power in 1998 was a vote against the unstable United Front governments. In 1999 again, the Vajpayee government was re-elected after having lost majority by a single vote and the Congress, which was seen to have plotted the Vajpayee government’s downfall, suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat with just 112 Lok Sabha seats.

The second factor that the Congress seems to be oblivious of is the leadership issue, much as the party cadres may display a hysterical make-believe exhilaration over the appointment of Rahul Gandhi as its general secretary.

Far from enthusing the young voters, Gandhi’s projection as prime minister—either overtly or covertly—may actually work against the party’s interests. Voters are likely to questions his credentials, experience and capacity to run for the highest office of the country.

So far, it appears that the Congress party is heading into an early election bereft of any potent issues other than a general economic boom and a good feeling about India. But that boom has been very uneven and not everyone, especially outside cities, believes the India rising story. And on top of it, the party has handed the moribund BJP a pretty good issue through the bungling on Adams Bridge and the “there is no Ram" statements. In these uncharted waters, past opinion polls won’t help show the future.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services, a research consulting firm.

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