By Swapan Dasgupta
When the ruling party believes it is time to identify the genealogical imprint of Indira Gandhi on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, you can be sure of two things. First, that Indian politics has scaled new heights of intellectual bankruptcy; and, secondly, that the natural instinct of the 124-year-old Indian National Congress is to fall back on dynastic adulation.
The idea that Indians should vote for the Congress because of Priyanka’s nose is baffling. But perhaps not half as baffling as some of the other issues the Congress and Friends of the Congress have introduced into the campaign: Priyanka’s views on Rahul’s post-poll alignments (should she be foreign or Indian?); the views of Robert Vadra (who he?) on Priyanka’s perception of her future; and Barkha Dutt’s enchantment that Priyanka speaks such good Hindi (must PLUs speak the ‘vernacular’ badly?).
The trend is intriguing. At this rate voters may be compelled to consider the views of Ottavio Quattrocchi (remember him?) on L.K. Advani’s plans to raid offshore tax havens.
The wicked people in town have equated the Track-II Congress campaign to a “family melodrama”—with even Race Course Road chipping in with a performance. They are only partly right. It is not merely the Congress that is anxious to avoid any meaningful stocktaking of the past five years—the Prime Minister promises an economic recovery in the next 100 days when he has not thought fit to appoint a Finance Minister in the past 100 days. The UPA constituents too are engaged in competitive tomfoolery.
Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad Yadav excelled themselves last Thursday. Even as voters were queuing in the scorching sun, these two were busy positioning themselves as uncrowned kings and king makers. Not for a moment were they concerned with the challenging electoral battles in the constituencies. For them the war was as good as won. Both took it for granted that the UPA (including the Fourth Front of RJD, LJP and SP) would not be able to cobble together a majority and would need the support of the Left.
Pawar and Lalu were interested in settling scores with an arrogant Congress: the NCP leader is bitter over the Congress’ vengeful attitude towards the IPL and Lalu is unlikely to forget Pranab Mukherjee’s threat (since retracted) to exclude him from a future Congress-led government. But neither paused to take into account a very simple fact: that their future plans will depend on how people vote in the first place. Both were guilty of taking the voters for granted. Lalu was explicit that the NDA had been decimated from Kurukshetra to Jharkhand and Pawar was not factoring in the possible outcome in Maharashtra.
In the age of coalitions, parties are prone to futures trading. However, the extent to which they can trade depends on the number of people they can get elected to the Lok Sabha. To win the battle of the ballot is the first priority of politicians; from this flows their shy at power. Pawar and Lalu have begun counting their chickens even before they have been hatched.
I may be over-reacting but I get the sense that voters may construe their premature pronouncements as nothing but arrogance. And there is nothing voters enjoy more than cutting politicians down to size, especially if they are perceived to be either haughty or shifty. The BJP was guilty of smug complacency in 2004 and came crashing down to size. This time it may happen to the UPA. Caught up in the thrilling headiness of government formation, its constituents appear to have overlooked the importance of winning the election first.
When the election campaign began, the pundits took it for granted that the Congress would emerge as the largest party and the truncated UPA the largest pre-poll formation. The deficit, it was also assumed, would be made up by wooing either a chastened Left or sceptical constituents of the NDA. It was this sensing of oozing over-confidence that prompted the Congress into rejecting any national alliance and even declaring Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate.
After the second round of polling, the Congress’ calculations seem a little less credible. Ground reports suggest that the Congress has not performed all that well in Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, isn’t likely to make gains in Maharashtra and won’t be able to pin the BJP down in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. There is now a definite question mark over its ability to emerge as the largest party in the 15th Lok Sabha. Equally, the prospects of the Fourth Front don’t look too good in Uttar Pradesh and appear distinctly bleak in Bihar.
Worse, in the battle with the Left, the Congress has blinked. The Prime Minister and Pranab Mukherjee have affirmed their non-hostility to the Left, thereby suggesting nervousness over the outcome.
To what extent the BJP-led NDA will be able to step into this void is still a matter of conjecture. However, there are encouraging signs for the BJP. First, it has made the Congress respond to its agenda rather be led by the Bharat Nirman-type rubbish that was dished out in the early stages of the ruling party’s campaign. The Congress has meandered from Jai Ho to “weak leader” to dynasty. Secondly, none of the NDA partners have scored major self-goals in the past three weeks. Contrast this with the public civil war in the UPA. Finally, the BJP and Advani have been cast in the role of an underdog and have therefore escaped the problems of media over-exposure.
There are no published exit polls to estimate the outcome in the two phases. But if the bush telegraph is any guide, the underdog and the favourite may have switched places. Maybe that is why the Congress needs someone with the right nose for politics.