SOUND AND FURY
- The belief that the UPA's position is not critical is unfounded
SOUND AND FURY
Despite the peremptory withdrawal of support to the United Progressive Alliance government by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the incessantly awkward noises being made by the leadership of the Samajwadi Party, the consensus in Lutyens' Delhi is that there will be no abrupt collapse of Manmohan Singh's government. Although all discerning observers, and particularly the financial markets, anticipate a period of turbulence, nail- biting uncertainty and policy drift, the overall belief is that Indians are unlikely to get a chance of voting in a new government until 2014 unless, of course, there is an accident which upsets all calculations.
Common sense should suggest that the Congress is viewing its government's survival on a life-support system with considerable trepidation. Yet, despite the additional nervousness created by the strange utterances and unpredictable conduct of the heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi, there is a quiet belief that the position of the UPA is not as critical as it may appear. This apparently bewildering optimism is based on a number of factors which may or may not be based on reality.
First, there is dogged faith in the ability of L.K. Advani and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to create a stalemate in the Bharatiya Janata Party over the projection of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, as the leader of the pack. The Congress believes, or rather, hopes, that uncertainty on this count could lead to a dispirited BJP, whose foot-soldiers are solidly behind Modi.
Secondly, there are tantalizing whispers that the assault of the Central Bureau of Investigation on the family of the late Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy in Andhra Pradesh is beginning to yield dividends that will, in time, lead to an understanding of sorts between the Congress and the Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress. Likewise, the pressure of investigative agencies would also ensure that the DMK's departure from the UPA would deter it from adopting a belligerent anti-Congress stand. There are sections of the Congress that even believe that an undercover electoral understanding with the DMK is still possible, and that the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, who is extremely vulnerable in his present Lok Sabha constituency, can be accommodated from Pondicherry.
Thirdly, in the past weeks, there is frenzied speculation that the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, will be tempted by financial lollipops to finally walk out of the National Democratic Alliance, citing the pre-eminence of Modi as the reason for taking a stand on 'secularism'. The groundwork for this is being readied and those who claim to speak for Nitish seem to be openly flaunting their anti-BJPism more than their desire to end a decade of Congress rule.
The Bihar chief minister's moves seem to be based on two assumptions. First, he is working on the assumption that a political break with the BJP on the question of the 'communal' Modi will endear him to the Muslim electorate of Bihar and have the same effect as Lalu Prasad's arrest of Advani during the rath yatra of 1990 had. In short, if Nitish is able to detach the Muslim vote from Lalu, retain his Kurmi-led backward caste vote and secure a sprinkling of the Congress's upper caste following, he will be home and dry. The Janata Dal (United), it is being said, need not enter into a pre-poll pact with the Congress. But if it can bring in some 25 members of parliament into the next Lok Sabha, it can play a role similar to that of the DMK in the UPA. Certainly, the composition of those who have climbed on to the Nitish-bandwagon suggests that he wants to play a meaningful role in the next government at the Centre. As a first recourse, he will try to torment the BJP into sending Modi back to Gujarat. In case that is not possible, he may be willing to explore a post-poll pact with the Congress.
Of course, this scenario is based on the premise that Nitish will squeeze both Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress to the margins in Bihar, and engineer a contest that involves only the JD(U) and the BJP. My own sense is that Nitish has underestimated the potential appeal of Modi among Bihar's other backward classes voters — something that, judging by anecdotal evidence, Lalu has not. If there is indeed a visible momentum in favour of Modi in Bihar (as a section of the state BJP believes), many of these calculations could change mid-course. In that case, Nitish may put his energies into finding a way of remaining in the NDA without losing face.
Nitish's second assumption centres on triggering a blend of sub- nationalism and regional pride. At the heart of this approach is the demand for 'special status' and a compensatory package for backwardness which, ironically, is at odds with the claim that Bihar (and not Gujarat) is setting the pace of economic development. In his budget speech, Chidambaram spoke about the need to redefine 'backwardness' in a way that exceptional benefits are no longer confined to the 'special category' states, that is the Northeast, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. It is believed that with the concurrence of the Planning Commission, Bihar could gain an additional Rs 12,000 crore from the backward regions grant fund under the 12th five year plan. Although this is well short of the Rs 40,000 crore of special assistance that Nitish has demanded from the Centre, the promise of additional resources may be a lifeline to Nitish, who has encountered political upheaval (such as the temporary teachers' agitation) on account of budgetary constraints.
However, in banking excessively on the political fragility of the UPA to wrest financial concessions from Delhi, Nitish may have overplayed his hand. Given the fiscal predicament of the Centre, its scope for showering political largesse has shrunk considerably. Nor does it have the political muscle to pressure the National Development Council to modify the 'special category' list. In trying to firm up his electoral plank, Nitish, it would appear, has allowed the larger fight against a skewed federalism to be overshadowed by his faith in his ability to exploit the Centre's discretionary powers. He has unwittingly given a new lease of life to the philosophy of a redistributive Centre, an idea that contributed to the economic devastation of eastern India after Independence and which, mercifully, was diluted following the liberalization of the economy in 1991. Where he should have been pressing for more statutory rights and control over regional decision-making, Nitish has been content to agitate for grace marks from an indulgent examiner. His approach is risky: he may have made Bihar's development hostage to the political mood of the Central government.
Finally, the Congress has been enormously encouraged in recent weeks by the overtures of friendship coming from Mamata Banerjee. Following the three by-polls, Mamata may have arrived at the conclusion that the decline of the Left has not been accompanied by a sharper erosion of Congress support. In short, there is every possibility that a three-way split in votes could go to the advantage of the Left. This could be more so in view of the possibility that a Modi-led BJP could secure as much as 12 per cent of the popular vote in Bengal, even if the moribund local BJP leaders sit idle. No wonder there are already unmistakable indications that Mamata may be reviewing her no-holds-barred assault on the UPA.
Together, all these developments add up to the likelihood of a bitterly contested election campaign where the expectation of change could well be spiritedly countered by the fears of change. As India persists with its gloomy economics, its politics is simultaneously acquiring an autonomous dimension.