Poll drums are getting louder

In a telling comment on the performance of government and growing corruption, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said at a function to commemorate Indira Gandhi's birth anniversary last month: “Our economy may increasingly be dynamic, but our moral universe seems to be shrinking. Prosperity has increased but so has social conflict. Intolerance of various kinds is growing. Graft and greed are on the rise”, adding “what we need is more effective and efficient government.” With the influential Economist describing India as the most corrupt, as one scandal after another erupts at its door, and the rest of the opposition, increasingly marching to the BJP’s tune over the 2G spectrum allocation scam, creating history of sorts by stalling the entire winter session, the talk that is gaining ground in political circles is that the new year could be the year of the much talked of mid-term poll. Mrs Gandhi’s concern over the growing graft and greed is seen as a tacit admission that the United Progressive Alliance is in the grip of a crisis. If UPA insiders are to be believed, the thinking is to go in for a snap poll before the anti Congress parties get time to regroup.

The Congress lost at least three previous general elections on the corruption issue. The Navnirman andolan in 1973-74, which began in Gujarat and spread to the rest of the country, created an alternative to the Congress at the national level, and led to the defeat of the Indira Gandhi government in 1977 in the aftermath of the Allahabad High Court judgement that led to the infamous Emergency.
The second — the issue of kickbacks in the Bofors' deal brought the anti Congress parties together, a process that began in 1987 and finally culminated in the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government . The issue was so powerful that it brought the BJP and the Left together despite strong ideological differences, two years before the general election.
Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had a brute majority in parliament. But P V Narasimha Rao government had to `manage' the majority by initiating defections and rewarding defectors with ministries. Not that it helped him to retain power. He lost the electoral battle on the corruption issue, compounded by the blowback from the Babri masjid demolition and anti incumbency in 1996.
Now, the Congress under Manmohan Singh government could be up against a similar set of circumstances. The corruption issue is refusing to die down even after four heads have rolled — Shashi Tharoor as junior foreign minister after IPL; Ashok Chavan as Maharashtra chief minister after Adarsh; Suresh Kalmadi as CPP secretary after CWG and A Raja from the Union cabinet over 2G. As with Bofors, the government’s tough stand on “No JPC” has helped the ‘rightist’ BJP consolidate the opposition and bring in the ‘leftist’ Marxists in parliament. The process could gain momentum if the Left front loses West Bengal and Kerala Assembly elections to be held early next year.
The DMK, which is said to be on a sticky wicket in Tamil Nadu, would have to decide whether or not to remain with the Congress if the DMK-led front faces defeat in the state Assembly polls. If Mr M Karunanidhi manages to retain power this time on his own then he may well refuse to play second fiddle to the Congress, UPA insiders say. That may well be the reason why crisis managers in the ruling front at the Centre are examining the need for a snap poll, a full three years before it is due. The Congress’ line on this issue could be spelt out in the party plenary session to be held in New Delhi from December 18.
A section of the NDA, especially leaders like Mr Sharad Yadav do not think the Congress will gamble. “This will never happen as the Congress’ mindset has been to remain in power till the last minute,” they argue forgetting that the Congress in the UPA II is in the unenviable position of being dependent on its allies and supporting parties to run the government. The UPA I was stable for over four years (2004 to 8) because of the Left’s firm support. But UPA II is a different story. The priority of ruling constituents and supporting parties like the Samajwadi Party, BSP and the RJD are different. Unlike the Left Front whose main fight is in the states of Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, these parties are ranged against the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and all other states.
Without a Jyoti Basu to reassure allies, their political interest will be protected, the Sonia Gandhi led party whose top priority is to regain lost ground in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and even in Maharashtra, can only make parties like the Trinamul Congress, the DMK and the NCP cautious about the Congress’ real game plan.
Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as the next leader of the Congress and its prime ministerial candidate may have also weakened the coalition spirit in the UPA as it poses a threat to the ageing satraps who head regional parties.
With the Bihar results showing that the young Gandhi may yet lack the quality of time and tested vote catchers and the charisma of his father Rajiv Gandhi and grandmother Indira Gandhi, the Congress leadership is caught in a dilemma. While the corruption issue, the nexus between politicians-— builders — and corporate sector has already tarnished the image of the party and the Centre while its ‘Waterloo’ in the Bihar Assembly elections has shown how the organisation has become secondary and filled with ‘yes men’ ever since the party came to power at the Centre in 2004, the Congress also knows it cannot be comfortable in a coalition government after ruling the country on its own till 1989.
Credible sources have indicated that UPA managers are therefore assessing whether an early Lok Sabha election can check a possible realignment of regional parties behind the BJP. But equally, running the government till 2014 could help the emergence of an alternative to the Congress which — unlike its first avatar — has not constituted a coordination committee between the party and its constituents in the UPA nor has it prepared a Common Minimum Programme. It calculates that it would reach the magic number 272 in the next Lok Sabha and thus form a government on its own. But the situation is politically fluid. The Congress has been unable to convince its allies in the UPA on why it is opposed to a Joint
parliamentary commission (JPC) on the 2G scam.
The allies might be backing the government because they want to stay in power, but they feel that the move smacks of immaturity. The Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee fears that the corruption issue could affect the coming West Bengal Assembly polls and help the Left; The DMK is assessing whether Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK will use the corruption stick to mar its electoral prospects in the Tamil Nadu polls.
According to a senior UPA leader, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has never been against constituting a JPC but refused to answer a question On whether the Congress party opposes a JPC. The Congress is clearly at the cross roads. Sticking to power would mean it has to accept the reality of coalitions and make compromises with current and prospective partners. Playing the card of snap poll requires confidence and courage besides hard work and a strong organisational network. The party lacks leaders who can challenge Mr Naveen Patnanik in Orissa, Mr Nitish Kumar in Bihar,Mr Narendra Modi in Gujarat on governance. It has a leadership crisis in Andhra Pradesh after late chief minister Y S Rajsekhar Reddy’s untimely death. And its dependence on a Dravidian party in Tamil Nadu, Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, NCP in Maharashtra, all giving conflicting signals about what is the real agenda of the 125 year old party which once proudly said “saare desh se nata hain, sarkar chalana aata hain”.
As it demonstrated in Bihar, the BJP is changing its political language and strategy after realising that it can defeat the Congress if it stops antagonising minorities and make inroads among dalits and backward castes.
The saffron party can come to power only through a coalition route and accommodative spirit even at the cost of its ideology. Its governance and tactical alliances has paid dividends in the Bihar poll. It is playing the Telangana card to create a space for itself in Andhra. But it has not been able to grow in Maharashtra because of the tactical alliance of the Congress — NCP. The Congress led UPA is fighting on many fronts in its second avatar. It will be interesting to see whether the Congress wants to strengthen the coalition spirit, run the party with a ‘go it alone’ spirit or divide the Opposition between the BJP and the Left.
It needs a strong second rung leadership — mass based leaders and not backroom boys, strategists and not managers — if indeed it must pull this off.

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