When political friends become opponents
By M J Akbar
The first pattern of this general election has emerged: the really fierce contest is not between traditional foes, but between yesterday's friends, particularly where they shared power. The BJP's sense of betrayal in Orissa is palpable. The more decisive story is within the UPA, where shifting mindsets have ignited a splinter-explosion.
In 2004, the Congress had a single aim: to defeat the BJP. This time, its objectives have doubled. Its parallel purpose in 2009 is to expand its base. Where this expansion is sought at the cost of the BJP there is only minor confusion, created by large-scale intrusions by Mayawati or more modest forays by Mulayam Singh Yadav. The contradiction within the UPA lies in the fact that the Congress space in the Gangetic belt and Maharashtra has been usurped by its allies. The Congress clarified its intentions when it decided that it would not fight the 2009 elections as part of an UPA alliance, but seek partial adjustments as suited its purpose. It has prioritised its opponents from the list of allies.
At the top of the Congress hitlist is the Left, which opposed its heavy strategic tilt towards America. The Congress accepted a humiliating seat-sharing arrangement with Mamata Banerjee in order to maximise the damage to the principal Left citadel. In practical terms, this alliance will not help the Congress very much: it would have retained its six seats even without Trinamool. But the Congress vote could help Mamata Banerjee to poll vault from one seat to 10 or even more.
Curiously, the Congress walked away from similar electoral terms in Bihar, giving a lifeline to the BJP and the NDA. Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan offered the Congress what it had, three seats. The Congress could even lose all three seats, because it is contesting alone. It accepted a double jeopardy in Bihar in order to begin the process of revival.
Ditto in Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam was more generous than Lalu. The Congress had nine seats; it was being offered 17. A Mulayam-Congress deal would have pressurised Mayawati, squeezed the BJP and taken Congress from nine seats into double digits. Double jeopardy again: BSP and BJP will increase their tally now. The collapse of the Jharkhand pact with JMM will be even more beneficial to the BJP. Is there an explanation?
The Congress stuck with Sharad Pawar only because it did not want its chief minister to resign before the Assembly elections in autumn. But Sharad Pawar is also dispensable in the large scheme of things; he blocks Congress growth in the second largest state, just as Mulayam and Mayawati choke it in the largest. In Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi retained his alliance with the Congress only by increasing the latter's seat share to 14 out of 39.
Congress has calculated that when the tears dry and the numbers are counted, the cost will not amount to loss of power in Delhi. It believes it will still emerge as the largest single party, and then be able to cajole or bully the very allies it has damaged by whipping up a 'Stop BJP At Any Cost' campaign.
They would not be politicians if Pawar, the Yadavs and Ram Vilas did not instinctively recognise the dangers of this squeeze. They have responded by squeezing back. Pawar has pre-empted the post-election bullying with a question of his own: if the Congress is so anxious to stop the BJP, why doesn't the Congress support a Third Front government from outside, or even inside, instead of demanding primacy of power in any coalition? In 2004, he and the others were caught flat-footed. This time they have begun a dance to a tune of their composition. Pawar has made it clear that he considers himself a better future prime minister than Dr Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi.
Prakash Karat, who has no debts to pay the Congress and feels betrayed, is categorical that the Left will not support a Congress-led government in 2009. If UPA is the modern coalition in Indian politics, the Marxists are saying that they are all post-modernists now.
Conflicts of regional interest have added a Fourth Front to the Third, but these parties will rearrange themselves after the results. Where conflicts are incompatible, parties like BSP and SP will be in different camps, depending on who has reached where first. Do not imagine that all 'Front' parties have closed the backdoor to the NDA. Indian politicians love the freedom of a two-way street, and some of them are dexterous enough to negotiate any roundabout.
But both the walk and the talk will start only on the afternoon of May 16. Professional politicians pay for opinion polls, and then dismiss those they don't like. This may occasionally reflect an inability to face the unpleasant; but they also know that polls are not necessarily the truth. An opinion poll is what it says it is: an opinion. The fact of the matter is that only facts matter. Till then, ignore the spin, enjoy a rest, but do wake up to vote.
Appeared in Times of India - April 5, 2009