Byline by M J Akbar: In the semi-final analysis…
The current Assembly elections are not quite the semi-finals that they are being billed to be, for the nationwide electorate will determine the fate of the UPA Government, and not just voters in six States. But it is beyond debate that these results will set the mood for the general elections, now expected at the very last legal minute, which means April-May. These are arguably the most important of the mini-general elections that have dotted the political calendar over the last two years.
So where is the Prime Minister of India during this virtual referendum on his rule? During the first part of the campaign season he was doing bilateral visits in the Gulf. On the day that Chhattisgarh went to the polls he was on his plane to Washington. It could be argued that the G20 Summit on the international financial crisis summoned by President George W. Bush was a must-visit. But that is not the real point. The fact is that the Congress could not really care anymore whether Dr Manmohan Singh is in Qatar or Chhattisgarh. He does not add to the vote.
The Indo-US nuclear deal, on which he staked his Government, over which he broke the alliance with the Left and brought in new allies who purchased MPs on his behalf, which was hyped up endlessly by favoured television channels as the glorious answer to India's prayers, has simply disappeared from public consciousness. The Congress had put two curious-looking lights at its Delhi headquarters to symbolise the success of the nuclear deal. The message was that it would bring electricity. The lights have been quietly taken down. Even Delhi's voters, who, as urbanites, might have been expected to care a hoot or two, do not care a jot. A misplaced bus corridor in the heart of the city will influence more votes in Delhi than the nuclear deal. As for remoter parts of India, it is quite remarkable that neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Sonia Gandhi campaigned in the 39 Chhattisgarh constituencies that went to polls on 14 November; although Rahul Gandhi did make a token appearance. Did the Congress give up on Chhattisgarh even before the votes were cast?
There is a perceptible demoralisation in the Congress, for both administrative and political reasons. The Government has failed on inflation and terrorism, the two issues of highest concern to the voter. Partly as a consequence, the coalition is coming apart as the various partners begin to reposition themselves for elections. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar are on opposite sides of the "bhaiyya" war in Mumbai, and ready to say so. Praful Patel, Sharad Pawar's alter ego when Pawar needs to fire from a second shoulder, has backed Raj Thackeray's parochialism, while Yadav walks a tightrope between defending fellow-Biharis and sitting in the same Cabinet room as Pawar. From his perch in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, his party in desperate straits, threatens to withdraw his ministers if Delhi does not intervene to protect the Tamil Tigers, who are under extreme pressure from the Sri Lanka Army. The Prime Minister can do little in effect except ignore these contradictions and carry on as if nothing is happening. A new ally, Amar Singh, accuses a DMK minister of astonishing corruption in what has become familiar as the "spectrum scandal". Once again, the Prime Minister has to pretend ignorance or indifference as unprecedented loot takes place under his watch. There is absolutely no sense of accountability, or a suggestion that good governance has some demands.
The only remaining strategy for the Congress is to hang on to office, whatever the daily rate of attrition, and hope for some miracle that might revive its fortunes. Reversals of public mood do take place. We have seen one occur over the last year. The Congress peaked in the summer and monsoon of 2007, until inflation and fear began to take their toll on India's nerves. This decline went into fast gear after the Amarnath agitation this year. But reversals need substantive reasons, and there is nothing visible on the horizon that can suddenly turn this tottering cabal in office into a viable instrument of promise. Divine intervention is always possible of course, but we have no evidence to suggest that the Almighty is partisan.
In an election season, confidence does not evaporate into ether. By some mysterious process, it travels by osmosis into the opposite side. There is an almost direct correlation. As one party turns skeletal, you can see the flesh gathering on the other. A year ago, the BJP was in deep depression, and its Governments seemed utterly vulnerable. Suddenly, they seem to have steadied and even become sure-footed. The most remarkable turnaround has been in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The first was nearly lost; the second was utterly lost. In both the party is in play, and could register morale-boosting victories. Vasundhara Raje has shown exceptional skills, not only in calming political turbulence, but in also energising two key vote segments, the young and women. Add to this the panache of economic growth, and you have a recipe that an electorate can savour.
The real semi-final, in my view, is actually the coming general election. The results of 2009 will set the stage for the revival of one national party as the electorate tires of regional parties, particularly in the North. Three critical factors will determine the winner: who controls how much space on the electoral map (the Congress is being suicidal by surrendering large swathes to allies); who is the better magnet for women and the young; and who has shown the ability to deliver on good governance. It sounds simpler than it is.