Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Great Depression

Byline by M J Akbar: The Great Depression

The big debate about when the next general elections should be held, whether in February next year or April is a lot of wasted waffle. You have to be a bit out of touch to believe that the voter really cares whether it comes thirty days before or after. The moment of decision has long past.
I suspect that much of the hot air spent on the argument is either simulated or an expression of anxiety. The anxiety is not limited to those in power, although they have monopoly rights over the decision. Those who want to get into power are possibly even more tense. But seasoned politicians on both sides know in their gut that, minor variations aside, the voter has already made up his, or, more important, her mind.

The Congress missed its moment twelve months ago. Mrs Sonia Gandhi -- for she makes this decision, not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, though it is his government which will be held accountable -- should have gone to the people just after the monsoons of 2007, along with the Gujarat Assembly polls. There was still some marginal fizz around the Indo-US nuclear deal, largely because it was still within the zone of hazy promise. Since then facts have tumbled out slowly, as documents exchanged between George Bush and the US Congress could not be suppressed from public discourse. The deal is now flat, and vote-neutral. Compared to inflation and the fear of terrorism, the deal is very small potatoes.

Last year, this time, inflation was just a growing blip on the economic radar, not an established truth. Terrorism was a dull pain, not the searing psychological wound it has become. Very few governments can manage an adequate response to hunger and fear, particularly if they have been responsible for stoking both.

Nor had the Congress made the serious tactical mistakes that are going to cost it big, as in the mishandling of the Amarnath agitation. It takes a unique ability to end up on the wrong side of both Hindu and Muslim community sentiment, but the Manmohan Singh government has achieved that. If Amarnath was the tipping point for the former, the encounter in which the Delhi police killed two young men near the Jamia Millia became the turning point for the latter. It needs to be noted that Home Minister Shivraj Patil took personal credit for supervising that encounter.

Different sections of the electorate have separate reasons for discontent. Inflation erodes support among the band between the poor and the middle class. Deflation of stocks values hits those with surplus incomes. Shrinking credit and capital flows depress industrialists, and put pressure on prices and jobs, which hurts consumers and the salaried. Bad news always tends to have a multiplier effect.

The real bad news for the Congress may lie not just in the quality of its own fate, but in the electoral fortunes of its allies. In 2004 the Congress had assets on every side, while the BJP was weighed down with incumbency and the Gujarat riots. The Left was a huge plus. The Marxists do not exist merely in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. There is a Left sentiment that reinforces any appeal to the poor and the minorities, particularly Muslims. It may not be a decisive influence, but it matters. This time the Left will accuse the Congress of running the most right-wing government, pro-rich and pro-American, since Independence. Allies with a more specific regional constituency are in bad shape. Lalu Yadav cannot repeat his success in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar has reinforced his support with good governance. The DMK will drag down the DMK-Congress alliance in Tamil Nadu, where losses will be heavy. The pro-Telangana movement bolstered the Congress in Andhra Pradesh; this time it will take revenge for the fact that Congress reneged on its implicit promise of a separate Telangana. In addition, the new phenomenon of Chiranjeevi will eat away Congress votes. In Maharashtra Sharad Pawar will be struggling so hard to preserve what little he has that he cannot be of much help to his partners.

Elsewhere, the Congress has lost a great opportunity by alienating Mayawati. She might have extracted a heavy price in Uttar Pradesh, but she would have been a boon in a dozen northern and mid-nation states. She could hurt the Congress in about a hundred Lok Sabha seats. The Congress preference for Mulayam Singh Yadav is curious. He is not going to be any more generous in Uttar Pradesh than Mayawati would have been, and offers nothing anywhere else. But when all your political calculations are compromised by the need to satisfy the Prime Minister's single-point obsession with one deal, then a mess is probably inevitable.

The only difference that an April instead of a February election can probably make is that the Congress would lose half a dozen more seats. A trend only intensifies with time.

The Assembly elections of November and December are a bit of a trap. If the Congress cannot exploit the anti-incumbency sentiment in the BJP-ruled states, which it should, then its supporters will be further depressed after losing a string of states over the past year. The Congress will need dramatic victories in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to create any buoyancy in its ranks.

The results of a general election are the sum total of federal results. The state of the states will determine who will form the next coalition in Delhi. If you want to find out who will rule Delhi, go south. And the south in the next general elections begins in Rajasthan.

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