Sunday, May 15, 2011

ASSEMBLY POLLS Summery Executions It’s a mixed result for the UPA: at least a presence everywhere, a routed Left, an ineffectual BJP. Andhra is its only big worry. SABA NAQVI

Summery Executions
It's a mixed result for the UPA: at least a presence everywhere, a routed Left, an ineffectual BJP. Andhra is its only big worry.

UPA: Seven Points To Ponder

  • Can an underperforming Congress continually depend on allies to shore up its numbers?
  • With corruption becoming an electoral issue, can UPA take its foot off the 2G pedal now?
  • Will a demanding Mamata Banerjee now be more difficult to handle than DMK?
  • Will UPA's ability to initiate key reforms be thwarted by Mamata's stand?
  • Will the scale of DMK's defeat have a bearing on the nature of UPA partners before 2014?
  • Will Jaganmohan Reddy's victory affect the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh?
  • Is Karnataka slipping out of Congress reach, with BJP winning bypolls despite charges?


If we look at these election results through personalities, then we must acknowledge that two solitary and strong women have uprooted entrenched regimes and changed the rules of the political game. The long-expected collapse of the Left happened in Bengal and without much ado. A diminutive woman in a white sari stood tall as the famed citadel of cadres collapsed into dust and haze. The revenge in Tamil Nadu was more unexpected as J. Jayalalitha posted a decisive win over the squabbling, bleeding Karunanidhi clan.

But the revenge has actually been of the voters. They have sent the message that no political party, however entrenched, should take them for granted. The Left lost West Bengal the day it turned ideology on its head and brutally tried to claim people's land for corporate use. Similarly, the K clan was punished in Tamil Nadu for trying to convert the state into a family fiefdom and for behaving as if corruption was their birthright.

The politics that determined the results in Kerala and Assam was more traditional. In Kerala, the Congress-led UDF won on expected lines despite a spirited fight by old Communist warhorse Achuthanandan. In Assam, CM Tarun Gogoi won a comfortable third term simply by not allowing polarisations to take over and taking the path of reconciliation by initiating talks with ULFA. "One gets the impression," says political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "that Gogoi's been the old-fashioned Congress synthesiser who could manoeuvre his way through the politics of polarisation the opposition was trying to play."

So was there a larger national message or was this just a sum of state battles? What has certainly been reinforced as far as the national players are concerned is that the Congress may have mounting problems everywhere but at least has a presence all around. The grand old party has also been able to call the BJP's bluff. For months now, the UPA government has looked so bad in New Delhi that it was presumed that opposition forces were gaining momentum. However, out of over 800 assembly seats, the BJP figures remain in single digits. That is why Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee declared at a press conference: "How can they claim to be a national party? I ask them not to destabilise the government but invite them to try and defeat us through elections."

But it is in Assam that the real tale of the BJP's limited power hangs. This was one state where the party was a genuine player and there were reports of a clever "unstated" alliance with the AGP. Yet, the BJP tally fell from 10 to five while the Congress won a third term, and with more seats than even 2006. Obviously, there will be a national rethink on the BJP's capacity now.

This affords a snapshot of the future political chessboard. It's now for the Congress to win and lose, and for the regional parties to provide the decisive shifts and turns. Listen only to what Ghulam Nabi Azad said about the Tamil Nadu verdict: "Don't blame the Congress. This is a game of alliance politics. When the alliance wins, everyone wins. When the alliance loses, we all lose." Off the record, Congress leaders admit they are secretly delighted with the Tamil Nadu result as the DMK—whose numbers are critical to UPA survival—will now be meek as a lamb. The 2G scam will continue to claim scalps, and that includes the possibility of Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi landing in jail. But with Jayalalitha expected to turn the heat on the DMK, they have no bargaining chips with Delhi unless suicide were considered a tactic of political survival. Hence, Congress leaders claim they have them where they want even if more of them land up behind bars.

The Tamil Nadu result also counters the argument that corruption is not really an issue with voters. It can become a regime-changing factor when it reaches gross proportions. The Congress will now try to use this to its advantage and claim it is the only dispensation that has taken such strong action against corruption that corporate bosses and politicians have landed in jail. In order to convincingly build its case, the party will also have to cooperate with the advocates of the Lokpal Bill and handle that situation tactfully.

But the real crisis staring Congress in the face is the big black hole that is expanding in its Andhra Pradesh bastion where Jaganmohan Reddy has done so well in the Kadapa bypoll. With the state sending the largest number of Congress MPs at the Centre, will the party now reach out to Jagan? Or is it too late for that and are we seeing the emergence of another regional force in the state? The situation is similar to what happened in another Congress bastion, Maharashtra, where the ncp split its base after Sharad Pawar walked out in 1999 in what was then seen as a rebellion against Sonia Gandhi. Since the political trend is towards strong regional forces, Jagan Reddy can certainly damage the Congress further. The party also has to decide whether it is for Telangana or not.

And fundamentally, with the Left so diminished, the Congress will also have to determine how much of that ideological space it can credibly appropriate for itself. The Nehru-Gandhi instinct is to at least seem to promote left-of-centre policies even as a sort of unbridled corporatisation continues. Surely a greater balance will have to be struck?

An interesting little cameo is currently being enacted in Uttar Pradesh where farmers protesting land acquisition policies found surprise support in Rahul Gandhi who appeared there dramatically, courted arrest and was later released. The Left learnt the hard way that land policies can undo a government. The UPA says it will come out with a coherent land acquisition policy and take the high ground on the issue.

The Congress can also take heart from the fact that after years of dealing with an indifferent or falling Muslim vote, there are signs of that support slowly coming back. In Kerala, large numbers of Muslims voted for the UDF alliance; the Muslim League too did very well. In West Bengal, Muslims abandoned the Communists and rallied behind Mamata and indeed the Congress. In Assam too, the Congress got impressive Muslim support. Handled by powerful but controversial Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, the extraordinarily good result will only reinforce his position in the party.

As for the Left, it must now struggle to remain relevant. No one is ever finished in Indian politics, yet political forces do get circumscribed—the BJP has yet to really recover after its 2004 defeat. Karunanidhi too looks like a tragic character in a Shakespearean play who has just lost the last big battle of his life. The squabbling successors remain beset with their petty troubles. So over it is to the ladies from the east and south: who have no dynasty, no clan, no succession plan.

Will Jagan's start be the Congress end?
Jayalalitha has returned in a mandate against corruption and cronyism. Weaknesses she's prone to.
The AIADMK wave propels Congress rebel and ex-CM Rangaswamy to victory
A new colour, a promise of renaissance. Mamata has to redeem her pledge, the Left can learn from the long making of its hubris.
The Congress-led UDF scrapes through
Veteran savvy and economic growth helps Gogoi do a Sheila

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