By Swapan Dasgupta
Indian general elections have the uncanny knack of injecting wisdom in hindsight. When the tally from the Electronic Voting Machines is revealed on May 16, there will be a torrent of clichés coupled with belated discoveries of undercurrents. The winners will shower praise on the innate maturity of a discerning electorate; the losers will harp on the failure of communications; and analysts will detect a hitherto invisible mood for either change or continuity. If there is no discernible outcome, there will be a frenzy to unearth a lofty ideological principle behind a lowest common denominator—“secularism” is the favourite. There will be one set of politics till the morning of May 16 and another from the afternoon.
It is precisely the anticipation of a mismatch between the voices at the hustings and the post-facto writing of history that prompted the pioneers of the Nuffield College studies of British elections to stress the virtues of reading an “election in flight”. The halfway stage may be an opportune moment to reflect on the flight path of the 2009 poll.
A striking feature of the 2009 campaign is the astonishing degree to which it has combined a parliamentary election and an American-style primary. If the dog fights between the Congress, NCP, RJD and Samajwadi Party (all ostensibly in the UPA) are any indication, it would seem that the battle is not between an incumbent government and its opponents but a delegate selection for a grand UPA plus Left convention to be convened after the counting. Last Thursday morning, even as voting was still underway, both Sharad Pawar and Lalu Yadav were pontificating on how the PM was to be chosen. This wasn’t just arrogant bravado. For the UPA, a civil war is being fought simultaneously with the war against the BJP-led NDA.
A corollary of this self-absorbed smugness is the Congress desire to keep its first family firmly in focus. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul may be doing all the travelling and delivering their lines but it is Priyanka who has been tailoring the campaign to the imperatives of a family melodrama. The Congress has deliberately scripted speculation of Priyanka’s future political role—with the frisking-exempt Robert Vadra chipping in—and her sisterly views on Rahul’s own post-poll alignments. Even her nose has become the subject of analogy and flattery. For the 124-year-old party politics, it would seem, is just a dynastic saga.
The Congress campaign is disproportionately centred on the need to skirt a debate on the past five years. L.K. Advani may have fired the first salvo in the majboot versus weak debate that has left the editorial classes drooling for more. Yet, since it is an accepted rule of politics to avoid a battle on terms set by the opponent, why did the Congress choose to respond? And that too by resurrecting a 17-year-old demolition and a nine-year-old hijack?
A possible answer is that a positive campaign based on the PM’s incredible claim of 80 per cent strike rate in the past five years had to be offset with a negative campaign that galvanised the committed. Indira Gandhi was adept in this game and Narendra Modi repeated this trick in Gujarat 2007. The flip side of this cleverness is that in proclaiming his combativeness, Manmohan Singh undermined his claim to be above the hurly-burly of partisan politics. In short, he reinvented himself into something which he is definitely not. Will the unlikely appearance of a pugnacious Manmohan bolster the Congress appeal among the middle classes? Or, will it add to the existing cynicism of the non-voting classes?
The extent to which Manmohan has ducked his area of core competence is staggering. At a time when even consumer advertisements are devoted to coping with the bad times, the economist PM has wilfully abandoned Keynes for Kandahar. Where the Congress was expected to reassure people that the economy is safe in the hands of a technocrat, the PM’s intervention has been confined to strange remarks about the inevitability of 8 per cent growth—the reality being a dismal 4 per cent or less. Never mind admitting the grim reality of a sharp downturn, the PM hasn’t deigned to utter even a word of sympathy for the 15 million victims of closures, redundancies and economic mismanagement. What is even more astonishing is that the opposition hasn’t taunted Manmohan with having a head but not a heart. They haven’t even detected the cruel irony of the Josh Congress has invoked.
At the midway stage of the flight, Verdict ’09 appears less about an opposition winning but a cocksure government gradually losing the plot.