Byline by M J Akbar: Is there a Plan B, Mrs Alva?
Does Margaret Alva have a Plan B? The battles of Delhi are never fought about the past; they are relevant only because they concentrate on the future. Why did Margaret Alva, once considered so close to Mrs Sonia Gandhi that her compatriots shuddered before crossing her path, choose this moment to accuse her party of corruption and nepotism?
Mrs Alva is not a novice. She knew the price of rebellion. Her reason was valid. Her son was denied a ticket for the Karnataka elections on the rather thin excuse that dynasty was not going to be encouraged in the Congress, an odd rationale for a party which has reserved its most powerful job for a dynasty. But she knew that she could not reinvent an election and restore the seat by exposing the double standards that are rife in her party. Since there was no personal gain possible, what political purpose did Mrs Alva have in mind?
Mrs Alva may have, after the High Command's retribution, resigned from high office, but she has not resigned herself to retirement. She feels she has many years of active politics left in her career. Others have suffered in the party; she is not alone. The general policy is to wait out a fallow period in the hope that better days will come. Why did she choose to opt out? She did not do this to join the BJP. That will not be her preferred option, although the BJP of course would welcome a credible Christian in its ranks.
There is something brewing within the second tier of Congress leadership. There are grievances in every large party. The BJP is teeming with them, as is evident in the current elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. If Mayawati cuts into Congress votes in MP, then Uma Bharti and Govindacharya return the favour by slicing off BJP votes. In Rajasthan, the energetic Vasundhara Raje does not have to look outside her party for dissidence. She is, or should be, more worried by how insiders might maul her prospects than what the Congress will do. But while dissidents are often willing to sabotage, they are rarely eager to revolt. Parties condone dissidence, since it is axiomatic that there will be some negative reaction to any decision taken. What they cannot afford is a revolt.
Is there a revolt within the Congress waiting for an opportunity to declare itself? Some leaders, like Narayan Rane in Maharashtra, have stopped caring about what the state leaders or the national leaders think. He attacks his own Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh with impunity. The Chief Minister, in the meanwhile, blithely ignores his Prime Minister and promotes the parochial line set down by Raj Thackeray. Delhi responds with silence and changes the topic. Control is beyond its current capability.
A political leadership is only as strong as its ability to deliver victory. Since Mrs Sonia Gandhi has lost elections in the states where Congress was in power, and now seems unable to convert anti-incumbency against the BJP into victories for the Congress, the second tier of the Congress is beginning to fidget. According to present indications, the BJP could return to power in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and is very much in contention in Rajasthan and Delhi. Of course every sensible person knows that no one can be sure of a result until the votes have been counted, which is why the political class is waiting for December 8. That is the day when murmurs will either grow or subside.
What leaders like Mrs Alva are searching for is a perch in the middle space between Congress and BJP. They believe that between them the Congress and the BJP will not win over 270 seats, which means that an alliance of the rest of the House could form a theoretical majority. This would of course need a collapse of the NDA and the UPA, which is not as simple as might seem since NDA partners share power in the states. The Akalis and Nitish Kumar would have to risk losing power in Punjab and Bihar, which would undermine their very existence in the volatile politics that we will see over the next few years. Moreover there are strong animosities within the regional parties as well: Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, or Nitish and Lalu Yadav cannot coexist in the same alliance. Would Chiranjeevi and Chandra Babu Naidu join the same government after having fought bitterly for power in Hyderabad? Of course they might, given the persuasive abilities of whoever wanted to be Prime Minister of such a coalition. I suppose if there was a system in which there could be six Prime Ministers, this might work, but regrettably we do not have such a polity.
So improbable, but not impossible. But the very fact that such options are being contemplated means that a number of senior politicians no longer believe that the UPA will be re-elected.
What is certainly not in doubt is that the next government in Delhi will be formed after the results, in the sense that neither pre-election alliance will be able to reach a majority on its own.
This, after all, was how the UPA came into existence. The advantage will lie with whoever is closer to the magic number of 272, but that will not be the only factor. The allies will lay down conditions for governance that the principal party will have to accept.
The danger is clear enough: throw a political meltdown into an economic meltdown and the crisis that is already upon us will become unmanageable. Happy — or not so happy — 2009 to readers!