Byline by M J Akbar: Get ahead, get a headache
‘The elections are dead. Long live the elections!’ This may not quite possess the grand flair of a Cavalier cheer for Charles the Second, but it does strike the more puritan populist chord so essential to the simpler creed of republicans.
Good Indians always take their time over weddings. Our funerals are faster. This is the obvious explanation for the Election Commission’s decision to drag the electoral carnival through six mind-numbing weeks. The results will be known next Saturday within six hours, bringing to an end one set of tensions and generating a new round of headaches. I sometimes feel that a stonemason should construct an Indian politician’s head. There is no other way to prevent headaches.
The relevant question, which cannot have escaped the reader’s traditional eagle eye and Einstein brain, is of course this: why have I pronounced the final rites of the 15th general election when there is still one round, with 86 seats (one more than the penultimate round) still left to deliver its verdict? If the results are obvious then an election is more or less over, isn’t it? I suppose apart from immediate kith and kin, and perhaps hardcore cadre, no one else in Tamil Nadu believes that the DMK is going to win this time. The Congress, which is the DMK’s principal ally, is obviously worried that it is going to lose big time in the state. You can see the depression on home minister P. Chidambaram’s face, and reporters are sending back stories that the candidate is snapping at voters with questions, always a bad sign (for the candidate, not the voters). It must be doubly depressing for him to imagine a scenario in which the Congress can form another coalition in Delhi, but there is no Chidambaram in the ministry. The Congress dilemma is reflected in the crisis created by Rahul Gandhi’s implicit overtures to Jayalalithaa. The overture might, or might not, be the prelude to a symphony after 16 May, but on polling day the atonal message will only echo in dysfunctional music for the 14 Congress candidates trying to get into Parliament from Tamil Nadu.
It is similarly obvious that the Akalis are under pressure in Punjab, and all the backroom boys with calculators have factored in Akali losses as they project the numerical mix of the next Parliament. The one place where the election is far from dead is Bengal, where there are 13 seats still waiting to decide whether the state will drive on the left side of the road or the right. There used to be a theory that heavy polling indicated bad news for the ruling party, since it meant that voters had been energised by anger. But such certainties are vulnerable in Bengal, since it is one state where the party cadre can be mobilised. The Left knows that this is its toughest election since 1984, and it will certainly have maximised what is politely known as booth management. Two remarkable aspects, however, have already emerged from the pattern of voting. First, violence has been minimal, so intimidation has not kept voters away. Credit for this goes to both the voter and the Election Commission. Second, there has been an exceptionally heavy turnout of women. Women constitute the most powerful silent vote in the country. The Left has been worried about the shift in the Muslim vote, and may have underestimated women as a distinct and independent category. There was 75% polling in the second round, which must be a record for a May election.
The good thing about time is that it passes — or is that a bad thing? There is less than a week left for the czars of democracy to fidget. But now that there is just a day left for the last shreds of rhetoric to wend their way through tired airwaves and desolate print, the next set of propositions are being put into place. They are not necessarily as simple as choosing either the UPA or the NDA at the Centre. The Left’s priority now will be to break the alliance between Congress and Mamata Banerjee before the Bengal Assembly elections. The easiest way to do so is to support the Congress in Delhi. This would force Mamata to go towards the NDA. But what if the Congress decided to stick to its ally in Bengal and dared the Left to support the NDA if they could? That would throw some exciting loops into the game, would it not?
Will Naveen Patnaik stick by his new friend Prakash Karat if he does not get enough seats to become Chief Minister again? He could ask the Congress for support, but that would dilute his identity, which has been created on Congress space. Can Chandrababu Naidu accuse the Congress of destroying Andhra Pradesh and then help it in Delhi to destroy the country? That is what the logic of a decision to shift towards UPA would amount to. Of course the Third Front parties, shuffling on the horns of a dilemma, would like nothing better than to get the support of the Congress while they enjoyed a year in government. But would Congress support a Cabinet that sought to reverse its economic and foreign policies? There may be some substance in the view that the Congress and BJP have already decided that they will not support any concocted government.
I hope you see why one suggested that a stonemason would be the man of the hour in Indian politics. The headaches of the second half of May might turn out to be migraine proportions.