As Agatha Christie might have said, a government is announced. The pre- lude to it could not how- ever have been messier, and the omens do not look altogether propitious.
To take the episode of the “renunciation” first. If the lady had already made up her mind, she could have, on the evening of May 13 itself, informed the electorate of her decision not to accept office as prime minister. She did not, she permitted a certain frenzy to grow over her impending ascension to the throne. It was only at the end of four long days that countrymen were told that she was standing down. This gap of one hundred hours spoiled the flavour of the abdication and allowed scope for diverse speculations.
The interregnum between the declaration of poll results and the formation of government was distressing for yet another reason. It permitted the court devotees to gather their forces and unleash a fresh bout of sycophancy: what a great lady she is, the nation gave her a mandate, which she has so nobly turned down. The verdict of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections is, though, no mandate for the lady, it is no mandate for her party either. The Congress has in fact polled this time 26 per cent of the total valid votes cast; this is even 2 per cent less than what it obtained in 1999. Its score is only 145 out of the total of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. The only major state where it has turned out to be the leading party is Andhra Pradesh; it is also the first party in four relatively minor states, Assam, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand. Elsewhere in the country, the performance of the Congress is nothing to write home about. In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, it has emerged as a poor fourth. Besides, of its tally of 145 seats, at least 25 to 30 are straightforward gifts from M. Karunanidhi, the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Shibu Soren.
No, the mandate has not been for the Congress. It has been, on the other hand, an issue-based mandate. The electorate has given a thundering thumbs-down to (a) the kind of fundamentalist obscurantism exemplified by the tribe of Lal Krishna Advanis, Narendra Modis and Murli Manohar Joshis, and (b) the anti-people measures passing as “economic reforms” which, parented by the Washington Consensus, were foisted on the country by the Congress in 1991 and subsequently nurtured by the National Democratic Alliance. The measures dealt immense misery to the general mass of peasants, workers and the middle and lower middle classes across the length and breadth of the country; they expressed their wrath via the electronic voting machines.
Against this backdrop, the composition of the new council of ministers and its first moves are cause for some concern. In Andhra Pradesh, the only state where the Congress swept the polls, the party benefited because the people voted solidly against N. Chandrababu Naidu’s economic policies. Almost everywhere else, too, the story has been the same. It is therefore, many will think, an affront to the mandate given by the people for the new prime minister to continue harping on the theme of “stability in the financial markets”. The verdict of the people has been as much against the goings-on in the share markets, which make or mar the daily living of barely 2 per cent of the nation’s population, or even less. The fatal attraction of the share markets has, it can be argued, actually locked up funds — including foreign funds — which could otherwise have been profitably deployed for industrial, agricultural and infrastructural expansion, leading to higher levels of output and employment.
Misgivings are bound to be felt in some quarters over the choice of the new finance minister too. This is the second stint in that position for the person concerned. He has the reputation, for good reasons, of being unabashedly pro-rich and anti-people in his views; such matters as pause in disinvestment and labour law reforms, across-the-board subsidies to the poor, a smoothly functioning public distribution system, provision of food security for the underprivileged, opposing the penetration of international financial capital and transnational corporations into the processes of the economy, and so on, are, going by past evidence, anathema to him. The finance minister in all climes has the largest voice in the shaping of economic policies. This is going to be the case even with the new government, irrespective of the contents of the common minimum programme drafted by the coalition partners. The text of the CMP will, who knows, perhaps be considered by the finance minister as a collage of garrulities, worth ignoring.
This is the dilemma the left face; they have to try to tackle it with as much acumen as they can gather. And in this task they are unlikely to receive much support from the Congress or its prime minister. The Congress is still buried in the feudal mindset. The fair lady has not been installed as prime minister, but she remains very much the head of the dynasty and the effective power centre; she has also been vested by the party with the prerogative to remove the prime minister at her will. It is an absurd situation: the prime minister of such a great country as India has to look back every instant and take the cue from someone else. No efficient administration can be run on such a basis. Whether the prime minister will be able to break out of the Mary-had-a-little-lamb syndrome is a question which can be properly answered only by him, or not even by him.
Another manifestation of the feudal order is the return to limelight of closet politicians. They, mostly a mindless lot enjoying high life in their Lutyens bungalows in New Delhi, are busy picking lush ministerial prizes as if they are their birthright. They can be hardly depended upon to defend the country’s secular credentials against the onslaughts of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which, though badly mauled, has not lost its fangs yet. In fact, on the issues of both anti-communalism and a pro-poor economic agenda, the Congress leadership is likely to be at best ambivalent. Now that Mulayam Singh Yadav has been excluded, the left have emerged as the determining quantity in the new coalition. They have to make a nuisance of themselves on the more contentious economic issues, they cannot afford not to do so. On the other hand, the advantage they supposedly enjoy might as well turn out to be a disadvantage: the die-hard believers in “economic reforms” could blackmail the left into acquiescing in some distasteful retrograde measures, for the option would be to let the government fall and the BJP to stage a come- back.
That would be a calamity for the nation, but may not be reckoned as such by the myopic crowd in the Congress. They are apparently underestimating the significance of another development. Almost half the seats in the Lok Sabha will now be occupied by regional and lesser parties; the hegemony of major national parties is over. The manner of assembling the new council of ministers — and pressures applied by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and others for increasing slices of the cake — has already set the trend: parties specifically representing states’ rights can no longer be wished away; they have to be assured of increasingly greater power and greater resources. Not to take the hint will have awesome consequences for the polity.
One or two further points emerge out of the mandate. Between the two of them, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have captured nearly three-fourths of the Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh — largely on account of strong support from minority groups. The Congress was nowhere in the picture. Should the coalition regime in New Delhi proceed on the assumption that it could now use its clout to marginalize these two parties, it might in fact add to its own problems.
Finally, a sincere request to the new prime minister: what about resigning forthwith his Rajya Sabha seat from Assam and instead getting elected to parliament from Delhi or Punjab' Politicians will play the game of politicians, but it hardly behoves the nation’s prime minister to prolong a pretence that is so transparently so; he does not hail from Assam.