Byline by M J Akbar: War Games
The November campaign might be for Gujarat, but its politics is about the next general elections. The very uncertainty about the date of a general election makes the politics that much more intense. Since no one knows when it might happen, for both individuals and circumstances could galvanise events, you have to be prepared for as early as April and as late as autumn next year.
The end of the last session of Parliament proved, in front of a nationwide television audience, that the government was in a minority on the one policy initiative that has defined its term in office, the nuclear deal with the United States. Even middle-of-the-road parties, like the resurgent BSP, had moved towards the opposition phalanx by the end of the debate.
This leaves Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with just two options. He can either run a minority government, or he can go to the people. The second is obviously more honourable. A government is born by the arithmetic of a plurality in the Lok Sabha, but it survives on a diet of credibility. Without credibility, a government becomes sick, just as an industry becomes sick without capital or revenue. You can continue operations, but only by accumulating losses. In politics, those losses mean fewer seats in the next Parliament.
There is, theoretically, a third option; walking away from the nuclear deal. But that too would mean a decisive dent in credibility. You cannot lead people to the pot of gold at the edge of a rainbow, and then proclaim retreat because you want a few more months in an arid status quo. It would be a very self-indulgent political leader who thought he could get away with such a ploy.
Dr Manmohan Singh is a mild man; that does not necessarily make him a weak Prime Minister. If I judge him correctly, he would prefer to take the high road towards an election, rather than the smudgy path of debilitating compromise. Obviously, this decision is not his alone. But, as an economist, he will have other, and equally powerful, arguments on his side.
The most persuasive, surely, will be next year’s price rise. The government has postponed an increase in oil prices for political reasons, but it cannot postpone the inevitable. The relevant Group of Ministers (headed, but naturally, by Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who seems to get all the work and little of the reward) has no choice but to recommend a hike. The inflationary spike that has been the story of the last two years will convert into a sharp spiral. There is already a subterranean sliver of discontent among the have-nots. Rising prices are the catalyst that could turn them hostile. Any delay in elections would only serve to reduce Congress seats, not increase them. It is a bad bargain to sell the future for a few months of the present.
Why cannot elections wait till the scheduled spring of 2009? The political agenda has messed up the dates on the electoral calendar: that’s why. For starters, after the confrontation between allies on the nuclear deal, the limp would be too long. Instead of just one foot being a drag, the government might get static, with both feet injured. A general election in 2009 would also be held according to the redrawn boundaries and new-reserved constituencies for Dalits to account for demographic changes. Many dozens of MPs would have to fight elections in constituencies they would hardly recognise. There is strong pressure on all parties to hold elections before the end of 2008, when old constituencies remain intact. There is also the whiff of a controversy that could explode into a fireball. There are protests in Bihar that Muslim voters have been artificially merged into reserved constituencies, making them ineligible to vote for Muslim candidates. Which government in its senses would risk wading through such a boiling cauldron?
Every country has an army, but most countries, fortunately, do not go to war at the drop of an intelligence analysis. What do the big brass of defence services do during the long fallow periods between conflicts? They indulge in war games, simulating reality on the planning board and keeping the boys busy in exercises that come as close to a projected battle situation.
Politics in a democracy is not all that different, except that there is far more warfare. Elections come once in four or five years; the time in between is consumed by planning for their outcome. Government decisions are tailored not just for the public good but also for the political fit: the voting constituency must be served before the electorate is addressed. Even as words fill the air, substantive issues are being given a wet run in Gujarat before they face the final test in a general election. The big three are economic policy, as seen through the looking glass of the price rise and social justice; the nuclear deal; and the Muslim vote.
For the Congress, the Muslim vote is crucial. In 2004, Narendra Modi stampeded the Muslims into the Congress box. The BJP won Gujarat and lost the country. This time, the problem is more nuanced. Modi might be the same person, but the situation is different.
George Bush is now in the picture, thanks to the nuclear deal and the strategic alliance. The Congress dream is to ensure that the spectre of a revived Modi outweighs Muslim anger against Bush. But is the Modi shadow large enough to envelop Bush as well as hide the sprinkle of questions that dot three and a half years in office? You cannot blame Modi for doing nothing about the Srikrishna report. Or for doing nothing about the recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar committee. Or for the indifference with which a sub-plan for Muslims in the 11th national plan was arbitrarily rejected. And you cannot quite blame Modi for the fact that the Congress has found a new ally in Gujarat, Gordhan Zadaphia. Who is Mr Zadaphia? He is the man who was home minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots and as culpable as anyone else. We know that democracy has a few reserved seats for cynicism. But surely there is some bottom line.
We will also get an idea in Gujarat whether there is enough sympathy for the nuclear deal among the urban middle class. The deal is also linked to economic reform and growth, objectives dear to the heart of urban Gujarat. Dr Manmohan Singh’s tour programme was drawn up with this in mind. There is, probably, no state more pro-American than Gujarat. This should be a factor in any potential Congress revival. Modi is by nature, and inclination, a polarising figure with a sharp communal bias: to accuse him of communalism is only to reassure those who are faithful to him. But even those who oppose him bitterly, for rational or personal reasons — he has, for instance, thwarted a number of careers in his own party — need issues on which to campaign for a future better than he can provide.
Gujarat is a key indicator, because the two national parties are also the only regional players. The results will test the resilience of both. The Congress has the advantage, because the odds are against it, and defeat will not be too demoralising. The real test will be for the BJP, if its expectations go haywire.
But both Congress and BJP should wait for the results before they send out ‘Happy New Year’ cards.