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Tuesday 20 December 2011

POLITICS Year of the shifts

Year of the shifts 
By Sachidananda Murthy
Story Dated: Friday, December 16, 2011 13:16 hrs IST 
Battle for key states will be on in 2012, and change in the Congress and the BJP in the offing

Hoping to stay: Narendra Modi is unlikely to shift his attention to Delhi, thanks to the Assembly polls 2012


Change of guard is a routine process in a political system. But 2012 is likely to be the year of big changes in Indian politics. Indications are that positions or, at least, authority would be ceded to younger people in both the Congress and the BJP. In addition, both the President and vice-president of the republic are completing their terms in the middle of next year, and the hunt for their replacements will begin in earnest soon. The crises faced by the UPA have weakened the political command of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and 2012 looks equally tough for the man, who is a great survivor otherwise. There are also crucial Assembly elections, where chief ministers, most prominent being Mayawati and Narendra Modi, would be seeking another term. If the voters of these states decide otherwise, there would be big impact on national politics.
The Congress has been ambiguous about reports that party president Sonia Gandhi, who underwent a surgery, may delegate some of her responsibilities to her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, after the Uttar Pradesh elections. There are suggestions that Rahul be made the party's working president so that he gets involved in day-to-day decisions of running the party, apart from his current assignment of overseeing the Youth Congress and other frontal organisations, as well as transforming the party in Uttar Pradesh. He would also discontinue his present policy of avoiding interactions with leaders aged above 50, as he had felt they should report directly to his mother.
Rahul also will have to direct the Congress in government, and implement the party's political agenda ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Congress leaders are, however, emphatic that Sonia would continue to command the party and guide the government, as it is bound to face more challenges in the New Year.
Interestingly, the BJP, too, is in the throes of a transition. Party president Nitin Gadkari and his principal backer Mohan Bhagawat, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are keen on a generational change in the BJP. They want the party to project a new leadership in place of L.K. Advani, who has been the prime ministerial candidate and the working chairman of the National Democratic Alliance. Even though Advani undertook an arduous rath yatra against black money stashed in foreign banks and has been active in Parliament, Gadkari has been dropping broad hints that the former deputy prime minister should now take the role of a mentor.
RSS insiders say that the next annual meeting of the Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making body, could give the signal to the veteran, who built the party along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But Advani's numerous supporters in the party do not think Gadkari has the right idea, and they feel that pique is motivating Bhagawat to move against Advani.
After Gadkari's declaration that only a Lok Sabha member could be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, many MPs have been looking for safer seats. Rajya Sabha opposition leader Arun Jaitley is eying Amritsar (currently held by cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu) and one of the Delhi constituencies.
Gadkari himself has been ambitious and is keen to contest from Vidarbha in Maharashtra, because his home town, Nagpur, could be tricky. Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj is another contender to succeed Advani.
Interestingly, former party president and public accounts committee chairman Murli Manohar Joshi, who is a tad younger than Advani, might throw his hat into the ring. Joshi had always felt he was sidelined by Advani, who denied him a second term, even though the party had crossed the 100 mark in the Lok Sabha during his tenure as party president. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the poster boy of Hindutva and development, however, is keeping himself confined to Gujarat, where elections are due within a year.
A smaller party which would see a change of guard is the Communist Party of India. A.B. Bardhan, who is one of the most articulate leaders of the Left Front, is not seeking a fresh term as party general secretary. His likely successor is deputy general secretary Suravaram Sudhakar Reddy. The strongman of the Left, Prakash Karat, completes his second term as CPI(M) general secretary in April 2012. He is expected to get another term at the party congress in April, but there would be new faces in the politburo.
Other regional parties are likely to continue with the old guard despite promising change. As Punjab goes to polls, veteran Parkash Singh Badal would still be the chief ministerial candidate, even though he had said his son Sukhbir, the deputy chief minister, would lead the party in the elections. Similarly, Mulayam Singh Yadav would be the Samajwadi Party's CM nominee in Uttar Pradesh, and not his son Akhilesh, who is energetically cycling his way round the state (the party symbol is the bicycle).
Uttar Pradesh is the big battle state, though elections are due in Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Gujarat. Mayawati, who pulled off a dramatic victory in 2007, is working hard and has come up with ambitious welfare schemes and even more audacious statues. She feels the Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin social matrix she had achieved five years ago is still intact, even though the Congress made a big dent in her bastions in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. At that time, she was seen as the woman who can decide the next government in Delhi, but the Congress pulled a fast one on her. Now Rahul is working hard and their pitched battle has eclipsed the traditional Mayawati-Mulayam face-off.
Apart from personality clashes, what makes the Uttar Pradesh elections more complex is the developments in the three-crore Muslim community. Disgruntled leaders have floated the Peace Party saying Muslims should not waste their votes on national and regional parties, but vote for Muslim candidates put up by the new party, whose strength has not been tested so far.
Another division in the community is the war of words supposed to be waged on behalf of the Deobandi and Barelvi schools, who dominate the thinking of Muslims in India. Deobandis supported the Congress last time, while Barelvis have a soft corner for Mulayam. Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited Deoband, despite protests from the BJP. The Congress is also trying for a tie-up with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has five members in the Lok Sabha and is expected to do well in western UP.
The BJP, which controlled UP through the 1990s and then went into a slump during the last decade, is hoping that the troubles of UPA would fetch them enough votes to emerge a kingmaker. The party neither has a visible leader like Mayawati or Mulayam or Rahul, nor does it have a chief ministerial candidate. It also has to defend its fortresses in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the party had removed Ramesh Pokhriyal and brought back B.C. Khanduri as chief minister. In Punjab, the BJP is allied with the Akali Dal, and the state has the reputation of not re-electing a party in the last three decades.
The presidential elections could become a cliff-hanger, if there is no agreement between Congress and non-NDA parties. Though Pratibha Patil has been a correct and popular President, the convention is that no President after Rajendra Prasad has got a second term. Since the UPA does not have a clear majority in the electoral colleges (which includes MPs and members of Assemblies), it has to negotiate with non-NDA parties.
Serious consultations could begin when the Parliament convenes in February for the Budget session. The electoral college has a large number of parties which are outside UPA and NDA, like the SP, BSP, AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal and the Left Front, which have a tidy number of votes.
Vice-President Hamid Ansari is one of the choices, as he has handled the Rajya Sabha competently and has been India's representative in international fora. But the former diplomat has a handicap—he does not belong to the Congress. The ruling party would prefer the President to be from its ranks, as it had managed in 2007. The Left Front, which provided outside support to the UPA then, had agreed to back a Congress candidate as President after the Congress succumbed to their demand that the vice-presidential candidate should not be a politician. However, Ansari's name would be seriously considered.
There are several Congress names floating around. Even the name of Manmohan Singh is mentioned, so that he can make way for Rahul. But the Left and the NDA would not support him. Another name making the rounds is that of Pranab Mukherjee, who has far greater acceptance among non-Congress parties. But Mukherjee may get ruled out for two reasons—he is very much needed as the principal troubleshooter and negotiator of the government, and secondly, it depends on how much he is seen by Sonia as the best choice for presidentship.
Another senior minister who has a clean image and larger political acceptance is Defence Minister A.K. Antony, but he is very much the trusted adviser on party and government matters for Sonia. Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, who has acquired a high profile in the last two years, is another name mentioned. And so is Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde; he was once the party's vice-presidential candidate and was considered for presidentship last time.
Interestingly, a heavyweight whose name has come up for serious consideration is that of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who has just won his third consecutive Assembly elections and is the architect of peace in his state. With an ever smiling face and courteous manners, Gogoi has won lot of friends across the political spectrum, and he is a trusted aide of Sonia. He is the face of the northeast, for which Manmohan has a soft corner. But Gogoi has not groomed a reliable successor, and the party may feel he is indispensable in Guwahati.
The vice-presidential election would largely depend on the agreements and disagreements over the presidential candidate. Only MPs vote to elect the vice-president.
Even as the UPA leadership is busy with these elections, governance would be a major problem for the UPA as it was in 2011, which could be called Manmohan's annus horribilis. Trials in 2G and Commonwealth Games scams would drag throughout the year, and the UPA has yet to come to terms with Mamata Banerjee, who is flushed with two consecutive electoral victories (Lok Sabha in 2009 and Assembly in 2011). Her manifesto is as Left wing as the Communists' whom she fought and despised.
She has emerged as the principal opponent of the Manmohan brand of economic reforms. The Congress would have to develop a twin strategy: while on one side it has to find ways of co-opting Mamata into its agenda by a quid pro quo arrangement, where her demands for more attention to West Bengal are cleared, on the other the party must find new supporters who can replace the fickle Mamata.
Economy would be a major concern for the Congress as the global monetary crisis has deepened in Eurozone and has now spread to China. While GDP growth has come down to 6.9 per cent, further deceleration could hurt the jobs and prices situation badly. Inflation has been a dragon in the backyard, which refuses to shrink into a tiny lizard, even though Mukherjee has assured that Indians would not be forced to eat lizards. The government and the Reserve Bank of India have to work out the growth stimulus in a rapidly darkening global economy, and the policy paralysis of the government is unlikely to be helpful.
The UPA's three big ticket programmes also may not get easy approval in Parliament, as there is less or no clarity among Congressmen on these proposals. First is the land acquisition bill, which Rahul thinks will protect farmers and earn their support for the Congress. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and former panchayati raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyer are slugging it out on the provisions, with Aiyer accusing Ramesh of cosying up to capitalist interests.
Second is the food security bill which saw huge differences between the Sonia-led National Advisory Council and the Montek Singh Ahluwalia-led Planning Commission. There were sharp differences between Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Food Minister K.V. Thomas also. Finally, a bill has been hammered out, but there are still sharp divisions on it. This new law is also seen as a vote earner as millions of poor families would get highly subsidised food grain, but Pawar feels it will harm the agrarian economy. In fact, Pawar has been vocal that the national rural employment guarantee programme, which helped Congress in 2009 elections, should be suspended for three years so that labourers return to the fields.
The third ambitious initiative was to give cash to the poor, instead of subsidies on fuel, fertiliser and food. Entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani was working on the contours of this project, but he has been hit hard by allegations of imperfect planning of the Aadhaar scheme, and he is running from pillar to post to save the unique identification programme, for which he left the corporate sector. Nilekani has been targeted by Chidambaram, even as Mukherjee supports the Aadhaar project.
Interestingly, 2011 has seen battles among ministers, and there could be sharper fights, triggered both by policy and personality considerations. These battles have weakened the government, as both Manmohan and Sonia have been reluctant to be tough with the warring ministers.
On the external front, 2012 is also the year where there could be bigger changes beyond Indian borders. While China would definitely get a new president, Barack Obama could get the boot if his poor ratings continue when polling takes place on November 4, 2012.
In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin managed to hang on to power after controversial parliamentary elections, but his big test will come in next year's presidential election which he has plans to contest.
France's Nicholas Sarkozy faces an uncertain future, while in Pakistan, health and political complications faced by President Asif Ali Zardari could upset the tenuous democracy in that country. Each of these changes, especially in the US, China and Pakistan, would have a serious impact on India.

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