Has Mrs Sonia Gandhi begun the Congress campaign for the next general election? June has already witnessed a trip to Mizoram after a decade and a half; later in the month, she will be in Aurangabad on a schedule that has taken the Maharashtra Congress a bit by surprise. The Northeast and Maharashtra are regions where support for her party has softened, but, according to her strategists, not beyond recovery. If the Congress cannot retain these seats, it is going to be in boiling hot water.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi would not be out in this heat, which also means that it is more difficult to obtain a crowd, without an agenda and almost certainly a calendar. Do they indicate a general election in November? India is a large country, and the sooner you begin the better. You could argue that she is on the road, using her credibility to explain her government's policies.
The theme of her speech is also a marker for the party's election campaign. It will flog the Indo-US nuclear deal as the panacea for all ills, hoping to solve two problems with one promise. The logic runs thus: the deal will make us independent of that evil thing called oil, which has created this vile inflation. Not our fault, brothers and sisters: it's either OPEC or the Marxists, take your pick. By placing it on the election agenda, Mrs Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will also hope to blunt post-election objections by the Left, arguing that the deal has been purified by electoral holy water. It is not an argument that will change the Left, but the Congress believes that the Left will be a much-chastened force, depleted by as many as 20 MPs from its current strength, while the Congress will return with its numbers more or less intact. If its current crop of allies withers away, it will use the leeway of time offered by a generous President of India to woo replacements from the Third Front or even the NDA ensemble. To be more specific, Mulayam Singh Yadav and his MPs will be invited to join the government the next time, instead of doing duty for five years near the door, waiting for crumbs to descend from the Prime Minister's high table. If Lalu Yadav collapses, intermediaries will rush to Nitish Kumar and attempt to wean him away from the BJP; and Naveen Patnaik of Orissa will always be welcome in the name of secularism. In any case, the Congress will not be vulnerable to Marxist "blackmail".
The only thorn amidst the roses of such a scenario is that it might be one year too late. Such an election outcome would have been far more likely if the Congress had gone to the polls last August, when the Left took a final decision to stop the Indo-US nuclear deal. The immediate Congress response was aggressive. The Prime Minister dared the Left to do its worst, and Mrs Gandhi went on the offensive during a speech in Haryana.
But it was a very different world in August 2006. The BJP was still in utter disarray. The Gujarat elections had not taken place, so the Congress had not been routed there: the BJP's self-confidence only began to return with that result. The nuclear debate still evoked a frisson of excitement from the urban Indian middle-class, which has convinced itself that America adds a Midas' touch to their present and future [the Greenback Dollar may be undergoing palpitations currently, but no Midas was ever more attractive than the Almighty Green Card]. That frisson has flattened. The middle class, whose interest had peaked with the media campaign of last year, has a question now: if the deal was genuinely crucial to the national interest, why didn't the Congress defy the Marxists and go ahead? Was survival in power for a few months more important for the Congress than the national interest?
For more than one reason, an election last autumn would have seen a return of the Congress-led coalition to Delhi. But that moment was lost, apparently because Congress' allies were not ready to forsake the comforts of office for 18 months in pursuit of that roulette game called elections. Lalu Yadav and Sharad Pawar went public with their objections; and the DMK murmured its unhappiness in the typical half-bitten vowels that are its political trademark.
Nine months later, the environment is besieged by concerns that are far more potentially fatal to a ruling coalition. Inflation and economic mismanagement have eroded its support. No one yet knows who will win the next general elections, but there is growing belief about who will lose it. Last August, a Sheila Dikshit would have ensured a Congress victory in most of the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. This year the Delhi voter, still enamoured of Mrs Dikshit, is wondering if there is any way by which it can retain her but demolish the Congress. [There isn't. You either get both or neither. ]
When the body weakens it attracts the most curious ailments. If Mrs Sonia Gandhi goes to Vidarbha in Maharashtra, another traditional Congress seat-catchment area, and picks up a few sounds from the ground, she will hear a question from the fertiliser-and-hope-starved farmer. He watches television. He knows about the 20-20 cricket tournament organised by Sharad Pawar. He now knows that the state government, doubtless under pressure from the patron, waived away the entertainment tax on stadium tickets, losing more than a hundred crores with just this one decision. The farmer is asking why this money could not have been collected and used to alleviate the difficult conditions he faces.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi would not be out in this heat, which also means that it is more difficult to obtain a crowd, without an agenda and almost certainly a calendar. Do they indicate a general election in November? India is a large country, and the sooner you begin the better. You could argue that she is on the road, using her credibility to explain her government's policies. But why waste credibility on a practice match, rather than the real tournament? The most reasonable assessment, in the absence of any confirmation, is that Mrs Gandhi's tours are a precaution against the sudden necessity of going to polls before winter, along with elections to five states that have to be held by then.
The cynical school of Congress thought, always a large and ever-increasing academy, believes that a November election would serve no purpose other than slicing three months of power, with its attendant lucrative benefits. But each month of delay will mean a few seats less for the Congress, not more. The Congress party is staring obsessively at a calendar just now. Someone should also bring out a calculator.