Byline by M J Akbar: Double Play
The Congress election formula is in place. E=M multiplied by C raised to the power of 2. E stands for elections. M represents Money, public money of course. And C is for Chidambaram, the finance minister who delivers an annual elixir for permanent youth rather than a mere budget, unlike s more pedestrian finance ministers. When Chidambaram throws public money, he does so with a heft and dexterity that would be the envy of champions. Whether he heaves a discus or hurls a javelin, his target is the same: the ballot box. He is so delighted with the cheering from government benches during the presentation of the national Budget that he has been urging all and sundry to think of a general election as early as in May. He believes that Congress can sweep back to power on a Chidambaram wave.
Actually, he may get his wish, although not quite in the manner he expects, if the Left withdraws support to the UPA government this month over the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Hallucination comes easily to anyone in power, but is there any merit in the Congress presumption that it can pick up the rural vote with this massive loan waiver, and the urban vote with the Indo-US nuclear deal? The political argument for the nuclear deal was put forward by Mrs Shiela Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi, just after Prakash Karat, general secretary of the CPI(M) asked the government for immediate clarity, and set a deadline for 15 March. Mrs Dikshit was given this difficult job because she is one of the few Congress leaders who still retains some credibility with voters. Electoral politics is never an easy partner of credibility, and Mrs Dikhshit’s might have suffered a scrape or two when she charged the Marxists with being anti-national Chinese agents who were coming in the way of India’s progress. This sort of thing is about four decades too late; it went out of fashion by 1965. Marxist leaders [including Jyoti Basu] were detained as potential fifth columnists during the Indo-China war of 1962, but proved, in the very next elections, in 1967, that the people thought them patriotic enough. The Marxists came to power for the first time in Bengal as part of a United Front in 1967.
They are still winning forty years later. The Marxists created history with a sixth straight victory in the Tripura Assembly elections. The Left Front got 49 out of 60 seats, increasing its numbers by eight; the Congress was down to 10, decreasing from 19. The CPM got 46 seats, a majority on its own; its allies got three. The Congress had done everything it could: it engineered an impression, pushed forward by sections of compliant media, that there was a huge anti-incumbency wave in the state. The Congress poured money into its campaign, and patched together a cynical and unhealthy alliance with a man who was on every terrorist list not too long ago, Bijoy Hrangkhawl. Mrs Sonia Gandhi raised the pitch with an intemperate speech that indicated what the Congress line on the Left is going to be.
The turnout was extraordinarily heavy: 92% of the voters cast their ballots. This is generally considered bad news for incumbents. The Left stood conventional wisdom on its head. There is no electoral bribe by the Congress that could have changed such a verdict.
Those who believe that they can hustle voters with large lollipops underestimate the maturity of the Indian electorate. The Indian voter can be persuaded with honesty and good governance; he cannot be purchased with handouts or fiscal tricks. In the last phase of its recent campaign in Gujarat, the Congress ran up a substantial laundry list of promises, including the offer to waive loans. It made not the slightest difference; the BJP won. Cabinet ministers like Kamal Nath have publicly voiced their skepticism, and serious economists have questioned the Chidambaram waiver [the details of which, by the way, are still the exclusive property of his intelligence, but will hopefully be made available for public viewing soon].
The Marxists, in the meantime, have decided to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh government if it does not end all negotiations on the nuclear deal. That is the simple meaning of the formal letter written by CPI general secretary A.K.Bardhan. The estrangement could develop into divorce even as early as next week. The Congress has bought time so far by deliberate waffle, but that purchase is now exhausted. The real arguments will begin, before the court of public opinion, after the break.
The Congress cannot pass the budget without support from the Left. If the alliance breaks, the Congress will accuse the Left and the BJP of sabotaging what it will surely advertise as the greatest gift ever made to farmers in the history of farming. That hoary old cliché, “an unholy conspiracy”, will be the centerpiece of every Congress leader’s cyclostyled speech.
The Left will respond with its own accusation: the Congress could have easily delayed the deal and pushed through the budget. But since Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi preferred America and George Bush to farmers, they sacrificed the farmers to placate America.
The BJP will watch the fun and talk of Rama Setu bridge.
The Congress is in election gear. It is looking for new allies everywhere, and pushing the patience of even loyalists like Laloo Prasad Yadav. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently wooed Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with a trip to China. Amend that: he offered an ego trip to China in an effort to create a rift between Nitish Kumar and the BJP in Bihar. It has also thought up a facile way in which to challenge Mayawati, by throwing up the idea of a Dalit for Prime Minister after the next elections. Anil Shastri wrote a piece suggesting this in the official Congress publication, and then prodded journalists to spread the idea through their media. Such semantics will not dent Maywati’s support, which is rock-solid in her community; but they could
damage one of the very few clean faces the Congress has, that of Dr Singh.
Is everything fair in love, war and elections? Not quite. Love is a relationship between two individuals; war is a contest between two armies. The outcome of elections is determined not by the contestants, but by a third force, a massive jury, the electorate. The morality, immorality or amorality of politicians is measured against the values of the voter. The prevalent mood of the Indian voter is to reward honesty, and punish corruption and deceit. If the farmer thinks that the loan waiver is an elaborate hoax, the Congress will suffer.
All sides will make their case directly to the voter in rallies. The voice of India will become the noise of India. Peace will return only after the general elections.