Byline by M J Akbar: Small boys, big game
There is only one relevant question in an election year: who will win? The pundits have begun to get themselves into the usual tangle, most of the tangle created by the spin of bias. The right thing to do would be to admit that no one really knows, but that would reduce a column to just one sentence. Since pundits get their money from columns rather than sentences, this is an inadequate solution to their dilemma.
If they must stretch their wisdom to a thousand words, may I offer a suggestion? They are making a mistake by looking at the big boys. The elections of 2009 might well be a game whose result is determined by the small boys.
Allies, rather than principals, could be the key to the formation of the next coalition in Delhi. It will also depend on how many seats the Third Front gets, and on which side its partners fall if they have to choose between the UPA and the NDA.
The three major allies of the Congress are Lalu Yadav in Bihar, M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. There is bad news for the Congress in all three states. The Chennai street is buzzing with talk about a triumphant return for Jayalalithaa. Between the pain of family feuds and the disgust of unprecedented corruption, the DMK seems to have lost it. It is often forgotten that the DMK has been in power in Delhi for two terms, first as an NDA partner and then in the UPA. That is a lot of temptation for DMK ministers in Delhi to handle, and they handled it by succumbing totally. They may have begun life from the usual humble origins, and they could be out of office soon, but trust me, they will never be poor again — for many generations.
In Maharashtra the Congress is facing a double-whammy. There is a dip in both voter-support as well as in the cadre. The voters have shifted to the Opposition after two nearly-full terms of a best-forgotten chief minister, who has had, uniquely, to be dropped twice. A good section of the Congress cadre has moved to Sharad Pawar, who has been building his party as a regional force for the state, on the lines of Telegu Desam and DMK/AIADMK. He has nominated an heir, his daughter, and the next general election may see her shift into the Lok Sabha from the Rajya Sabha. His best legacy is not a victory in 2009, but a strong party structure that can survive the ephemeral phases of democracy. Pawar is sharp enough to see the future clearly. For 2009 is a transition, not a horizon.
The UPA bastion in the east is crumbling. Nitish Kumar, with the simple offer of good governance, has made substantial inroads into Lalu territory. Muslims are moving towards him in substantial numbers, and Lalu Yadav's traditional vote-bank rhetoric about the BJP will not stop the drift, since the voter has made good governance his pre-eminent priority. The Congress has the difficult task of not only preventing erosion in its own numbers, but also compensating for the losses that will be suffered by its allies.
Since 1991, allies have gained far more from alliances with the Congress than the other way around. Lalu Yadav has boxed the Congress into just four seats out of 40 in Bihar. When a party does not contest seats, it withers at the roots, which is what has happened to the Congress. Mulayam Singh Yadav will not concede more than 15 seats out of 80 in UP; Mamata Banerjee will keep the Congress down to 10 out of 42 in Bengal. Congress will gain in states like Kerala and Punjab, and could improve its numbers slightly in Rajasthan, but that will not easily offset losses in big states like Maharashtra, Andhra and Tamil Nadu.
One assumes that Congress believes it can use the BJP bogey to bring in the Left and Third Front parties into its coalition after the results. This will not be easy. The Left believes it has been betrayed, and abused, by Dr Manmohan Singh, inside and outside Parliament, over the strategic alliance with the United States. It is not likely to hand over leadership of any alliance it supports to the Congress. Congress might offer to prop up a minority government from outside, but other parties will recall what happened to I.K. Gujral and Deve Gowda. They might prefer stability to a temporary triumph.
The balance will, in any case, swing towards the alliance with the larger numbers. To be in play, the BJP-led NDA must deliver over 220 seats. Will that happen?
Why don't we let the electorate tell us in April and May? The pundit pontificates. The citizen votes.
Before we bury another year (this one with great glee) it is only appropriate to write an epitaph for 2008.
A word coined by the growing tribe of wordsmiths, and an email doing the rounds (both gleaned from the special Christmas issue of the Spectator) seem to be the perfect epitaph for the dreadful year just behind us. The word is quite a good one, not the least because it resembles an expletive: "funt", meaning "financially untouchable". But the email is more fun:
Socialism: You have two cows. State nationalises one and gives it to your neighbour.
Communism: State takes both and gives you some milk.
Fascism: State takes both and sells you some milk.
Capitalism: You sell one of your cows and buy a bull; herd multiplies, economy grows. Sell them, and retire on income.
Lehman Brothers Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at Bear Stearns, execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with tax exemption for five. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights of all seven cows to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option for one more. You sell one cow to buy the President of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the press release. The public then buys your bull.