The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Early polls would give India three options for government

It is clear from the words of Prakash Karat, A.B. Bardhan and their colleagues who run the coalition of Left parties that they are expecting an early election. The communists might be split in their strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala, but ideologues like Karat who have never fought elections, place strict ideology above electoral politics. A visceral anti-Americanism has been Left ideology in India since independence, and it is not influenced by the decline of the Soviet Union, the vast influence of non-resident Indians in the United States of America, or the trade, technology and investment linkages that bind the two economies. Almost certainly the Left will not be as strong in the next parliament as they are in this one if there is an election next year.

Polls suggest that the Congress might emerge stronger and the Bharatiya Janata Party weaker. Mayavati will be stronger in parliament. She has not been in office for long enough for the anti-incumbency factor to take effect and her initial actions in Uttar Pradesh suggest that she is proving her effectiveness from the outset. Neither the BJP nor the Congress will emerge big enough to form a government without support from other parties. This is where the prospective coalition poses questions and doubts about the future of the country’s foreign and domestic policies.

Ashustosh Varshney, after analysing election results since 1951, found that there is high probability from past results that an incumbent state government will be replaced at the next election. The Telugu Desam Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam should, on this hypothesis, do well in the imminent parliamentary elections. Incumbent Nitish Kumar in Bihar might well challenge the Varshney hypothesis by doing well since indications are that the Nitish Kumar government is offering good governance. The horrible memories of the Lalu Prasad regime have not been wiped out by his self-acclaimed performance as railway minister. Akalis may also not perform worse since the Amarinder Singh regime’s sins of venality and worse are slowly coming to light.

The possible outcomes of a parliamentary election in the next few months are three.

A Left-led coalition with the TDP and the Samajwadi Party, H.D. Deve Gowda, possibly Nitish Kumar, is one possibility. Such a coalition might have just enough numbers with support from some independents and defectors, to form a government. It would have many greedy and unstable elements in it, particularly the TDP (from past experience of its support to the earlier National Democratic Alliance government). Another will be the Samjawadi Party, which will use every trick that a Central government can devise to destabilize Mayavati in UP. A third is the fickle and unreliable Deve Gowda, preparing, after having run the Karnataka government (through his son) for 20 months, to go back on his word to his coalition partner, the larger BJP in the assembly, that his party would cede power to it for the next 20 months. The only stable and reliable members will be the Left and Nitish Kumar’s people. From power without responsibility today, when it has got its way especially on economic reforms, it will, in a prospective coalition, lead a non-functioning government. It will not last. Such a government will only discredit the Left.

A second scenario is a new NDA coalition with more unreliable partners like the AIADMK, possibly Nitish Kumar, Akalis, and Mayavati if she is sufficiently tempted to offer support. The BJP will remain faction-ridden and racked with infighting without the towering personality of A.B. Vajpayee to head it. L.K. Advani, an opportunistic strategist, useful in exploiting volatile issues like Ayodhya, is a poor leader of the party, particularly in government (demonstrated when he was the NDA home minister for six years). Narendra Modi might be far better. But for Nitish (if he offers support), or Mayavati, a Modi government might be the kiss of death for their political futures. The AIADMK and the Bahujan Samaj Party have leaders with the common desire to get cases against them withdrawn and demand largesse from the Centre. They will also be opposed to each other. Nitish Kumar might be the most sober support but not if Hindutva takes centre stage. Without Vajpayee’s coalition-building skills, this government will be a pale shadow of Vajpayee’s NDA.

A new United Progressive Alliance coalition with the Congress, with possibly Mayavati — if Sonia Gandhi is able to offer acceptable sops to her, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and allies is the most viable option. With only one demanding and intransigent member — Mayavati, this coalition might be able to take some bold initiatives. The tilt towards the US and building India as a regional military and economic power are not opposed by any of these parties. This coalition might be able to move forward on the reforms that were blocked in the present UPA by the Left. Privatization, lifting caps on foreign direct investment in telecommunications, retail and so on, easing investment restrictions on pension and provident funds, are only a few policies that this coalition can implement.

If the Congress does better in an imminent election, credit must be given to the Left. The aam aadmi emphasis and socially sensitive policies like the national rural employment guarantee scheme and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan gave a softer image to the Congress. Till then, the Congress was associated with the apparently rigidly reformist and pro-rich image given it by Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. Instead of claiming credit for policies that have had some social impact, the Left is now disclaiming the coalition with the Congress. It is painting the Congress that it supported for three years as an American, capitalist and anti-Islamic stooge.

It is unlikely that the electorate is bothered about the allegation of pro-Americanism. It might buy the capitalist charge, but the Left has enabled the Congress to claim credit for the first set of comprehensive pro-poor policies (initiated at the Left’s urging). The anti-Islamic charge arises out of the distrust among Muslims of the American administration after the American invasion of Iraq, and also out of the Indian vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s discussions on the Iranian nuclear programme. It could swing many Muslim votes against the Congress, though this might be limited if the Congress is publicly honest about the dangers that an Iranian nuclear programme poses for India. But there will be a large section of Hindu votes that could swing to the Congress for the same reasons.

The losers on all these counts will be the BJP. Instead of taking credit for the nuclear deal with the US that has resulted from the Vajpayee government’s initiatives, the BJP is opposing it. The vote against Iran is in keeping with the BJP’s world-view, but it has not publicly supported it or claimed it as arising out of its own policies. The BJP is like the communists, not taking credit when it is due.

The Indian economy is performing well despite the Left as a stumbling block to many reforms. Except in the case of a Left-led government, growth is likely to continue at the present pace in either scenario and might accelerate if the new agricultural policies are effectively implemented. A new NDA coalition (the second scenario) might be better for the economy because it is unlikely that partners will have any ideological opposition to economic reforms or foreign policies. The problem will be with the quality of the BJP leadership. A new Congress coalition (third scenario) with opportunistic regional parties may be the best bet for the immediate future. Sonia Gandhi may have the last laugh at those who thought that she was merely a foreign gungi gudiya (dumb doll).

The first scenario is least likely, and the prognosis for the economy is good in the other two scenarios.

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