By Swapan Dasgupta
Ever since the heir apparent made a complete dog’s breakfast of his party’s avowed strategy at a press conference in Delhi last Tuesday morning, the Congress has been compelled to wage war on two fronts.
The first, naturally, is the battle on the ground for votes and seats. The second, unfortunately for it, is a desperate rearguard battle to allay two parallel perceptions. First, that it is an untrustworthy and selfish ally, forever willing to kick colleagues when they are down. Secondly, that it is terribly jittery about emerging as either the single-largest party or the largest pre-poll combine—the two yardsticks the President may use to decide who will have the first throw of the dice. The hapless Veerappa Moily may shout himself hoarse proclaiming that the Congress on its own will win 180 seats—Kapil Sibal added 20 more to the tally—but after Rahul Gandhi’s open appeal to all migratory birds to park in the family zoo there are concerns of the Congress’ initial over-confidence being unwarranted. It is, for example, noteworthy that the party quietly withdrew the triumphalist Jai Ho campaign before the fourth phase of voting and the blunderbuss Moily as spokesman before the announcement of results.
The extent to which Rahul’s gaffes will influence the voting preferences of the aam aadmi is debatable. Information in India takes a long time to percolate down and, if reports of the voting in Delhi are anything to go by, the Congress hasn’t been too adversely affected. However, Rahul’s remarks are certain to have a bearing on how non-Congress parties, particularly its other partners in the erstwhile UPA, view the Congress. The Congress is suffering from a trust deficit.
The past five days, for example, has seen the revival of talk of a Congress-Left cooperation in the formation of the next government. Those who were only too willing to denounce the Left as backward looking and ideologically hidebound in the aftermath of last July’s Trust Vote have begun singing the virtues of a “secular” alliance to keep the BJP out of power. Last Thursday night, the affable Sitaram Yechuri was more or less accused by a rather shrill anchor of a TV talk show of facilitating a Hindutva government led by L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi.
The pressure on the Left to once again play ball with the Congress is certain to increase in the coming days. That there are those in the Left who want the CPI(M) to play the part of the CPI in the early years of Indira Gandhi is not in doubt. Left-leaning notables and academics who were recipients of the UPA Government’s patronage in the past five years would like nothing better than to see Prakash Karat kiss and make up with Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family. Rahul’s identification of a “common space” which will enable a Congress-Left cooperation has been cited as evidence of the Congress’ return to secular realism. The pressure is on for the Left to reciprocate at its Politburo meeting on May 18.
To what extent can the Left accommodate the Congress desire to have five more years of a coalition led by it? If Karat is to be believed, the Left is determined to usher a non-Congress, secular government. His talks with Naveen Patnaik last Friday afternoon was apparently centred on the need to draw Sharad Pawar into the Third Front. But is this the last word?
For the moment it would seem so. The Left nurtures a deep sense of betrayal after hving supported Manmohan’s government for four years. It made relatively little demands on the government—certainly nothing compared to what the Samajwadi Party wanted in the seven months of its honeymoon with the Congress—and even allowed economic policies it disagreed with fundamentally. On the Indo-US nuclear deal it was, however, unwilling to budge. The Left believes the Congress was guilty of deception. The charge may be exaggerated but the Left believes its own rhetoric. Hence its determination to teach the Congress a lesson it won’t forget in a hurry.
The trust deficit between the Congress and Left over the nuclear deal is compounded by CPI(M) understanding of political trends. The Left believes that national parties are slowly but definitely on the decline and that the ensuing vacuum is being filled up by regional parties which are broadly centrist and secular. The Left believes that its greatest chance of influencing the direction of Indian politics is to work with these regional forces and provide them the articulation and ideological compass.
The Left has fought the 2009 election with the understanding that its presence in the 15th Lok Sabha will be considerably less than in the preceeding House. That is not a cause of worry for it. What matters to it is the influence it will have in a future government. It does not need any rocket science to predict that the Left impact will be greater in a Third Front-led government than in a coalition led by the Congress. The Left fears the natural hegemonism of the Congress; it has no fears of any one party dominating a short-lived Third Front government propped up by the Congress. The calculation is that every election will witness shrinkage of the Congress and BJP.
The Left will bat for a Third Front government till the bitter end. If it can’t get its way, it would prefer to sit in the Opposition (though this may be coupled with strategic abstentions)..
The only thing that may prompt a review is if the 2009 verdict reveals a significant growth of the BJP. If the BJP is seen to be not on the decline, as was initially thought, the heirs of S.A. Dange and Mohit Sen will get a new lease of life. Karat’s success depends on both national parties registering an indifferent performance.