Byline by MJ Akbar: A Bridge too Near
If there is the faint sound of a wobble in the Manmohan Singh government, it has nothing to do with the states. The Prime Minister’s credibility has been dribbling away ever since he decided to make the nuclear deal with the United States the central achievement of his government without thinking through the consequences of unsustainable triumphalism, or indeed the nuances of policy-making in Washington. His worst mistake was to hint that opposition to this deal was "communal", since some Muslim organisations had protested against George Bush. Credibility is all he had. If that goes he has little else.
Those who play bridge know that there are two routes to success. Either the combination of 26 cards on your side (13 each with you and partner) matches so well that even a two or a three bring in a trick; or the honours are so dominant that they make the opposition irrelevant. If you have both, of course, then you bid Grand Slam with a smile.
Elections used to be an honours game. The aces — from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Jyoti Basu — used to dominate the electoral game. Their charisma was the decisive factor. I was going to use "decisive edge" but it was always far more than an edge.
It is true that Nehru and Indira Gandhi might have won nothing without the broad base of the Congress they inherited from Mahatma Gandhi, and Jyoti Basu would have been merely a brilliant barrister without the party structure created by Promode Dasgupta and his selfless contemporaries, but equally, the Congress and the CPI(M) were sustained by the magnetic leadership of such aces.
The Marxists were sensible enough to appreciate that a combination of distribution and honours was unbeatable. So they retained the United Front even when they had the numbers to rule Bengal alone, and would not let Jyoti Basu retire even when he wanted to. (Not every politician thinks power is synonymous with life.)
But the aces have gone, or left the table; electoral bridge is now a largely distribution game. The allies make the difference, and even the smallest card, with one per cent of the vote, matters.
Few elections have been as fascinating, even breathtaking, as the one being fought currently in Tamil Nadu, because, unusually, everything matters. Our opinion poll, done by ACNielsen, believes that 48% of the vote will go to the alliance led by Jayalalithaa and 47% to her foes, led by M. Karunanidhi. That is a dead-heat, given that the standard margin of error is plus-minus 2.07%. Jayalalithaa personally commands 46% of the vote, but if Vaiko, with 1%, had not switched sides and joined her, the script might have become lop-sided. It is a tribute to Jayalalithaa’s sagacity and character that she never permitted her ego to come in the way of a political alliance: there are leaders in Delhi who could learn a lesson or two from her. She knew the statistics. In 2001 she won 132 of the 234 seats with 31.44% of the vote, and DMK got 31 seats with 30.92% of the vote. A difference of half a per cent in vote share meant a gap of 101 seats in the Assembly. Such are the tyrannies of first-past-the-post system.
The DMK is more dependent on allies than Jayalalithaa. It has 42% support, but is kept in the race by 3% from the Congress and 2% from the PMK. The Left is statistically invisible but has its role in key constituencies.
If the cards on both sides are evenly matched, then it is the aces that will make the difference. Karunanidhi might have made a fatal mistake when he projected his son M.K. Stalin as the face of the future. There was a visible sag in the DMK momentum at the start of the campaign, during the Stalin phase, and it is only when Dayanidhi Maran came into the spotlight did his alliance emerge from the shadows. Irrespective of the results in May, this Assembly election will have marked Maran’s evolution as a leader of his state. If his party does not recognise this, the smile on Jayalalithaa’s face could become even larger.
For she has the clear edge when it comes to personality. All the pointers in the opinion poll confirm this. Her party is four points ahead of the DMK only because of her (since it is a personality-driven business, if her party were to lag, it would also be because of her). She has only two allies; the DMK has half a dozen were anyone to count, and yet she is ahead. It may be a marginal lead, but Tamil Nadu is all about margins that transmigrate into broad sweeps. Two years ago to the month she suffered what was widely advertised as a death blow, losing every single seat in the elections to the Lok Sabha. To revive from that graveyard needed miraculous levels of self-belief and a head as cool as the South Pole.
The key statistic is surely that 90% of those who voted for her in that failed election are still with her, and only 4% have switched to the DMK. In comparison, there has been a switch of 8% from the DMK to her, and the DMK’s retention rate is 86%.
Unusually, both sides have been in power during the last two years. Jayalalithaa of course remained chief minister, while the DMK joined the Union government with key portfolios. Jayalalithaa used power to better public effect than her opponents. 52% of the people think that she has been either a "very good" or "good" chief minister; between 60 and 70 per cent believe that the three basics, drinking water, electricity and road conditions, have improved under her watch, and a clear majority thinks she did good work during the tsunami and the floods. These are the pillars of good governance. Unsurprisingly then, she has the lead among the young. The young poll more heavily than the middle-aged.
So what happens if ACNielsen is right and Jayalalithaa forms the government in Chennai again? A whole lot of nothing, actually. A few hours of genuflection, and life goes back to normal. There is no logical reason for turmoil. The Congress, after two years in power and daily megaphone publicity, will not have increased its vote share anywhere, and slumped in Kerala and Assam. Despite a fractured and unimpressive Opposition, the Congress will probably need a coalition in Assam, turning one more one-party state into coalition country. In Bengal and Kerala, the party remains a lower single-digit fact. So why should parties which have nothing to gain from uncertainty, risk the comfort of power in Delhi? The only partners of the ruling coalition in Delhi to gain will be the Left, which will add a Kerala wing to its Bengal fortress. The Left has no history of deliberately destabilising any of its comfort zones. A cat that gets cream late in life doesn’t believe in nine lives.
If there is the faint sound of a wobble in the Manmohan Singh government, it has nothing to do with the states. The Prime Minister’s credibility has been dribbling away ever since he decided to make the nuclear deal with the United States the central achievement of his government without thinking through the consequences of unsustainable triumphalism, or indeed the nuances of policy-making in Washington. His worst mistake was to hint that opposition to this deal was "communal", since some Muslim organisations had protested against George Bush. Credibility is all he had. If that goes he has little else. It was always a comforting myth that leadership is possible without understanding politics; that this, in fact, might be a virtue. He must be the first Prime Minister of India who would cancel a series of election meetings in a vital state like Bengal in order to attend an economic meeting in Hyderabad. Others would have done both, not one at the expense of the other.
A government is as strong or weak as its focal point. That focal point is blurred. Foreign policy is in shambles. Domestic policy is shooting off in different directions, depending on the predilections of Cabinet ministers.
Manmohan Singh might be a good man, but that, alas, is not good enough reason to be Prime Minister of India.
The Government of India is a pack of cards without an ace.