The ease with which the Congress finally had its way on the presidency does not take away from the tough times that lie ahead
In getting Mulayam Singh to back Pranab Mukherjee for the post of President, Sonia Gandhi may have managed to undo the unconvincing but significant partnership that Mamata Banerjee stitched together with the Samajwadi Party. Yet the tactical victory the Congress has snatched will do little to alter the political trendline that is — as things stand today — taking the party inexorably towards defeat in 2014.
But first the positive. The Congress has every reason to feel satisfied by the ease with which it fought off what looked like a serious challenge to its authority. Caught by surprise, the party didn’t know how to react to the list of three names — including that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — that Mamata and Mulayam announced at a joint press meet last Wednesday.
By evening, political pundits and television anchors were busy scripting the obituary of the United Progressive Alliance government and speaking darkly of early elections. In less than a day, however, the tables had turned. The storm clouds that might have gathered around the highly popular candidature of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam quickly dispersed, leaving Ms Banerjee shell-shocked and isolated.
But the Trinamool Congress leader — and others who aspire to rule this country — might well have the last laugh if the UPA reverts to business-as-usual: the underlying dynamics at play in national politics remain fundamentally unchanged and the outlook does not favour the Congress. Not by a long shot.
What are the principal elements of the evolving national political scene as of now? I will summarise them in nine propositions.
First, Manmohan Singh will remain Prime Minister till the end of the UPA-II’s term in 2014. There was never really any doubt about this though the manner in which Mulayam proposed his name for President suggests there might have been powerful forces — not all of them political — working to bring about a change. But with Dr. Singh’s image and performance such an inseparable part of the UPA, Ms Gandhi knows a change at the top would be tantamount to admitting the eight years of his prime ministership were a failure and would work against the Congress, not help it.
Second, there will be no early elections. Neither the Samajwadi Party, which will likely support the UPA on all major issues, nor the Trinamool — which will continue to blow hot and cold and perhaps even quit the UPA — can or will precipitate the collapse of this government. In any case, the Trinamool by itself can do nothing. As for the SP, the priority is to consolidate the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, which requires a workmanlike, if not close, relationship with the Centre.
Third, despite the prospect of stability at the Centre, the Congress will continue to decline politically at the level of individual States. In Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and even Maharashtra, where the Congress is in power, poor leadership and management will cost the party seats in 2014. The UPA’s tally could increase in Karnataka but not by enough to offset the sure losses it faces in Andhra, Tamil Nadu and even Kerala compared to 2009. In north India, the Congress’s prospects remain dim in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and U.P., where it won 21 seats. The scenario does not look good for it in Haryana and Delhi, or Punjab either.
Fourth, the salience of corruption as an issue which agitates the urban middle class voter and high prices, which anger the rural and urban masses, particularly women, will likely increase. And this anger will impact directly and negatively on the poll prospects of the Congress and UPA. That is why Ms Banerjee feels the need to distance herself from the Congress.
Fifth, regional parties will continue to consolidate themselves, largely at the expense of the Congress and the UPA. The BJP, which ought to have profited from the Congress’s problems, is unlikely to do so. As we move towards 2014, the only States where “national” parties will unambiguously dominate are Kerala, Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and possibly Jharkhand. Regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Jayalalithaa, Jaganmohan Reddy, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati are likely to enjoy even greater clout after the next election.
Sixth, in States where the Congress is in direct contest with the BJP and its allies, it is likely to cede ground wherever it is currently in power and face an uphill battle in trying to defeat sitting BJP governments with the exception of Karnataka. Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will be tested later this year, while Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will go to the polls in 2013. None is likely to bring cheer to the Congress.
Seventh, the BJP will continue to face a crisis of national leadership with top brass remaining at daggers drawn. If the party gets re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and wrests Rajasthan from the Congress, this will open the door for it to select one of its successful Chief Ministers as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election.
Eighth, Narendra Modi will not be one of those leaders. Whatever his administrative acumen may be, the taint of the 2002 pogrom will not be erased and the Gujarat Chief Minister will remain unacceptable outside his State both to the electorate at large and to parties like the Janata Dal (United), which will be a key constituent of any National Democratic Alliance government. Among its other State-level leaders, therefore, the BJP could seek to project at the national level Shivraj Chauhan or Vasundhara Raje.
Ninth, Rahul Gandhi will lead the Congress campaign in 2014 and will be projected as its Prime Ministerial candidate.
Based on these dynamics, there are four possible outcomes of the 2014 elections. (1) Re-election of the UPA under Rahul Gandhi; (2) Victory of the NDA with the BJP in a strong but not commanding position within the alliance; (3) Emergence of a Congress-supported centre-left ‘Third Front;’ (4) A BJP-supported centre-right ‘Fourth Front’ led by someone like Nitish Kumar.
Going by the current state of play at the State level, the last option — of the ‘Fourth Front’ — seems to have the edge over 2 or 1. Option 3 becomes viable if the SP and the Trinamool, which today have around 45 seats, are able to more than double their tally, but without the Communists providing the ideological glue is unlikely to take off.
The corporate sector’s preference would be for 1, 2 or 4. Options 1 and 2 promise them “stability” and the possibility of pushing reforms. Option 4 will be unstable but offers the greatest opportunity for primitive accumulation through resource rents.
In the face of this unfolding scenario, what will the Congress strategy be? One option is for it to accept the inevitable and play not for 2014 but for the possibility of a mid-term election following the collapse of whatever coalition gets established that year. Some analysts saw in Mr. Mukherjee’s nomination as President an insurance policy being taken out by Ms Gandhi for such an eventuality. The reality is that he wanted out. Thus, the departure of Pranab Mukherjee opens the way for a complete and major overhaul of the Cabinet and of government policy. With defeat staring it in the face, the Congress could experiment with pushing out its non-performing assets in the Cabinet and give independent ministerial responsibility to younger Ministers like Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, D. Purandeshwari and others. Ministers holding more than one Ministry or several major Departments should be asked to divest all but their core responsibilities. There is no point in giving senior Ministers squatting rights over important portfolios which they then go on to neglect when younger Ministers are chafing at the bit for want of work.
The mandate the new Cabinet should pursue is not dogmatic “reform” of the kind the corporate sector and stock market players are demanding but of paying attention to the nuts and bolts of government: getting service delivery right, ensuring the tens of thousands of crores being spent on infrastructure actually end up in roads, ports, water and sanitation works and electricity.
To be sure, Mr. Mukherjee was not an obstacle in the way of such a purposeful programme being adopted. But his promotion could serve as an excuse for the UPA government to reinvent itself. The Congress and its allies might still end up losing the next election despite pulling their socks up. But after three years of neglect and worse, surely they owe the country a farewell present.
The article has been corrected for a factual error.