Sunday, April 29, 2007

Up and Down

Byline By M.J. Akbar : UP and Down

When you can’t win, the best thing to do, naturally, is to change the definition of victory. Since no political party can win in Uttar Pradesh, all of them are in the process of redefining success.
This is a clever massage, done with much kneading by psephologists and media pundits. Victory is a clear measure; success is a comparative call. If you can keep the bar of expectations low enough, then you can always sound jubilant after crossing it. It is a high jump battle played by low jump standards.

The Samajwadi Party is in power, and began the election campaign promising it would return to power. It will now declare victory if it is the second largest party. The Bahujan Samaj Party thought it was riding a wave. There will be garlands of currency notes if it gets between 130 and 140 seats.

The BJP is best positioned to smile, since it began with no expectations at all after its disastrous collapse in the general elections three years ago. If the BJP crosses a hundred seats, its president Rajnath Singh can assert that its revival is now a fact. If it crosses 120 seats, it can bring out the drums.

The Congress is best positioned to cry, since its unexpected success in the general elections of 2004 lifted expectations skywards. Three years later, when it should have been looking at three-digit results, it has lowered the bar so far that it has become a very low jump. Congress strategists are getting ready to congratulate themselves if the party gets 35 seats out of over 400. A person who was not born in the winter of 1984-85, when the Congress swept every seat in Uttar Pradesh, has voted for the first time in this Assembly election. A generation has matured into a voter, but twenty years and three presidents later, the Congress has still not found the political pulse of India’s most important electoral state.

In a normal election, arithmetic should be sufficient to determine who has won. In Uttar Pradesh, the victor will be determined by algebra. Alliances will be shaped after the results. The chief minister will be selected not on the basis of what matters to voters, but on what matters to politicians.

Discount therefore all the statements about integrity being made during the polls. All options are open. Everyone is ready to sleep with anyone, as long as the pre-nuptial agreement is acceptable. The only possibility that can be ruled out is an alliance between the BJP and the Congress, but that is a non-starter even in mathematical terms: the two together will not add up to a majority in the House.

Rahul Gandhi, who seems to be campaigning as much against former Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as anyone else, remarked that the 1996 Congress alliance with the BSP, fashioned by Rao, was a historic blunder. That assessment is absolutely accurate, but it will not prevent Congress from supporting, or even joining, a Mayawati government if the Congress gets 40 seats and the BSP can top 140. (They can always turn that into a majority with the help of independents and defectors.)

Rajnath Singh might assert, with a straight face (and if you look at his picture, you will notice that he has a very straight face indeed), that the BJP treats every other party as untouchable but cometh the hour, cometh the touchability. If the numbers add up, both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav will happily take BJP’s support to form a government. They might be less happy about lending support to a BJP government, but the future is all in the numbers. Crunch those UP numbers and you never know what might fall out.

The Congress, which keeps a lot hidden up its long khadi sleeve, also has what might be called a post-democratic option: to use the fractured result as an opportunity to impose President’s Rule so that it can exercise hundred per cent authority despite getting less than ten per cent of the seats. The governor of Uttar Pradesh will happily issue an edict declaring that no party is in a position to form a stable government, and therefore he should become the fountainhead from which all decisions and privileges flow. The snag, of course, is that while the Congress might have an obedient governor, it does not have a pliable President of India. President Kalam’s popularity ratings are exploding upwards precisely because he has been correct and Constitutional instead of tweaking ethics to play politics. He is not going to compromise in the last days of his first term.
It is entirely appropriate, then, that a second Kalam term will be heavily influenced by the election results of Uttar Pradesh. There should have been no debate. A direct election for President of India would have been no contest. Opinion polls show something in the nature of 80% support for President Kalam. But the electorate consists of MPs and MLAs so it becomes a game between political parties.

The UP results will not affect the numbers too much, but they will affect the course that different parties choose to take. Without anyone realising it, support for the ruling UPA coalition has whittled down by over 45 MPs. The government still enjoys a majority, but it is an open question how comfortable that will be in a secret ballot. Partners must have confidence in the popularity of the core party in any coalition. That confidence is ebbing from the Congress, and if it shows no hope of revival in Uttar Pradesh, after having displayed none in Bihar and Bengal in the last two years, then tiny little question marks begin to form in the mind, waiting to grow up into huge exclamation marks.

The Congress government in Delhi has been singularly responsible for wasting a historic opportunity to rebuild the party’s momentum, and rediscover its place as the preferred home of Indian politics. Government is an opportunity to put together the blocks that can establish a network of voting groups that can re-elect you. In 2004 the Congress skilfully created a coalition at the top, of parties who could dominate Parliament. It then forgot to create a coalition of voters, who would have kept the ruling alliance’s feet anchored to the ground. When power goes to your head, you can’t look down.

From the head, power seeped into the ozone layer. I wish I could say that it slipped through the fingers, but the metaphor refuses to descend. It is only when you live in the stratosphere that you believe that votes will come when a golden chariot ploughs through an election crowd. Votes stick in a honeycomb, patiently constructed, cell-by-cell, village-by-village. The Congress has no party structure left from one end of the Ganga to the other, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Bengal, and no leader with the time, or interest, to do hard, street-level work.

If semantics were sufficient there could have been four chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, and maybe five Prime Ministers of India. There is a solution for such an inconvenient Constitution. Our legislators could always amend it. With three Prime Ministers acting as co-brothers, which coalition could ever fail?

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