Beleaguered at the Centre

In the absence of strong regional leaders no national leader today can swing an election on his or her charisma and ability alone

The UPA-2’s “all is well” third anniversary party early last week, where Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav the “chief guest”, would have been the development of the week had it not been for a political accident that startled the nation.

Mr Yadav had promised support to the ruling coalition on the condition that no bureaucrat’s name is proposed for President (the SP chief was obviously alluding to vice-president Hamid Ansari and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar being in the race). It wasn’t an unreasonable demand and was easy to meet. But the Congress Party’s excitement over a prospective ally was blown away by the “petrol bomb”. The country exploded at the steepest ever hike in petrol prices — by over `7.15 per litre. The Opposition, cutting across the secular-non-secular divide, along with the allies of the UPA, embarked on agitations.
The real issue in India today is the lack of governance and once again we saw total chaos as UPA leaders merrily gave their personal, often contradictory, opinion on the fuel crisis. No one seemed prepared to take the blame for the whopping hike. The Congress, predictably, felt the heat with its leaders and spokespersons speaking in many voices with the result that people were made to believe that the oil companies took the petrol price hike decision on their own.
Then we were told that petroleum and natural gas minister Jaipal Reddy would monitor global trends before taking a final decision. (Meanwhile, though, the Delhi government has proposed a reduction of `1.26 per litre in the price of petrol in Delhi, forgoing the VAT on the hike amount.)
The Army Chief then fired a salvo in an interview to news channel, talking about sensitive issues in our defence establishment, including the Tatra-BEML scam. Should this be discussed in the media? While the Army Chief’s integrity is beyond dispute, only time will tell how the public reacts to the points raised by him on the many issues concerning the Army.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and many of his advisers holding Cabinet and minister of state ranks do not have to fight elections and they will happily go back to their teaching jobs and on lecture tours abroad. But the Congress Party has to fight and win elections. Biting the bullet on several fronts at the same time is not a sensible thing to do for an already beleaguered political party.
Clearly, someone has to take charge both in the Congress and the BJP. Look at the relative comfort of regional parties, which have well-defined power bases and strong leaders elected by the people. Time does not wait for anyone and the window of opportunity opens and closes. In my opinion both the national parties have put off taking important decisions till very late and suffered at the hands of powerful satraps.
I have little doubt that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi has to lead the Congress charge while Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi will lead the BJP. Neither at this stage, though, is in a position to deliver miracles, but they have the capacity to arrest the negative trends. Designations and posts are not important in politics — what is important is perception.
In the recent Assembly elections in five states — Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — the results have, barring isolated instances, been negative for the Congress. The problem is that the party lives in denial and depends more on the chaos in the BJP for its survival. Regional parties are gaining more and more ground. As I have said earlier, I see the Congress sliding from 206 seats to 130-140 in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the BJP from 116 to 100-110 seats. The Congress and the BJP may win 240-250 seats between them while regional parties could win 270-300 seats. These superior numbers are already making their presence felt in political decisions. Can the Congress or the BJP win either the President or the vice-president election on their own and are their allies listening and responding to their political needs? The answer, unfortunately, is in the negative.
The BJP has slid from 182 to 116 seats and will have a tough time maintaining its current numbers. Though the power base at the Centre has never been well defined, the BJP has strong leaders in states.
The Congress has increased its Lok Sabha seats from a low of 111 to 206 in a decade — 1999-2009, which is a remarkable electoral feat, but it now faces the bleak prospect of shrinking to 130-140 seats. Ignoring this reality, the Congress is acting as if it has a majority rule since the 2009 results. This has led to complacency at every level and a series of political missteps, eroding the grand old party’s credibility. Majority governance is very different from coalitions — in every state there would be multiple groups loyal to the Centre, which have to be balanced to contain everyone in their political space. This has changed. In the absence of strong regional leaders no national leader today can swing an election on his or her charisma and ability alone. Between now and 2013-14, both the national parties will have to make many difficult choices.

The writer is a former
Union minister

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