The setback in the Assembly elections provides an opportunity for the UPA and its partners to rediscover the political usefulness of a working convergence.
TECHNICALLY, IT is possible to argue that the outcome in Punjab and Uttarakhand will have no impact whatsoever on the stability of the Manmohan Singh government. The Lok Sabha numbers remain unchanged. But that can only be small comfort because a government's stability is one thing and its verve and vitality another. The poll results will generate a chemistry of their own, which in turn, could give a fillip to unhelpful impulses and unhealthy forces in the already over-charged body politic. In particular, the outcome needs to be evaluated in terms of its impact on three sets of relationships first, the likely readings by the National Democratic Alliance and the Left; secondly, the cohesion within the United Progressive Alliance, especially the synergy between the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress party; and, thirdly, the cumulative impact of the first two on the Centre's efficacy.
More than the Akali Dal victory, note needs to be taken of the Bharatiya Janata Party's success in Punjab. Bluntly put, the BJP has been able to reclaim its Hindu constituency in the State. The BJP leadership cannot be faulted for wanting to read into this outcome a revalidation of its aggressive strategy, based on a re-jigging of the Hindutva agenda. It may be that this whiff of success will revive the far from settled leadership struggle within the party and its new president Rajnath Singh may find himself confronted with a different kind of challenge. Nonetheless, this very internal turmoil will instigate a revival of the hardcore Hindutva demands and slogans, as it will permit encroachments by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh overseers.
More crucially, the BJP success is bound to have an impact on the nature of the party's relationship with the rest of the NDA. So far, the BJP crowd has chafed at the demands of moderation and restraint made by allies and partners such as Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav or N. Chandrababu Naidu; emboldened by the Punjab and Uttarakhand outcome, the BJP/RSS may not be all that appreciative of its allies' concerns. This, in turn, could see the BJP administering a new dose of partisanship in and outside Parliament.
The Left, on the other hand, may see the vote as a rejection of the Congress' variety of anti-people policies and governing habits. The Left would be justified in reminding the Congress that its economic policies notwithstanding the much-touted "eight per cent growth" have brought little comfort to the aam aadmi. The Left may feel even justified in continuing its attitude of ambivalent friendship with the Congress, thereby rendering the UPA more vulnerable to the Sangh Parivar onslaught.
Within the UPA, the smaller outfits will find themselves having to decide whether the Congress still retains the momentum, which in 2004 prompted them to see political and electoral benefits in an alliance with Sonia Gandhi's party. Though coming into the 2004 battle the Congress had lost crucial Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, the national mood was still sufficiently disapproving of what a BJP government did in Gujarat and what a BJP-led government at the Centre did not do in the State. The BJP today does not suffer from any pronounced Gujarat-type debilitation, and many of the UPA partners may not be all that averse to walking away from a wounded Congress.
On the other hand, the UPA allies and others (such as V.P. Singh's Jan Morcha) may want to take note of the national level consequences of persisting with an opportunistic inclination to hurt and weaken the Congress in province after province. Not only have the allies been politically difficult, they have also been less than faithful in working as responsible partners in national governance. Granted that the onus is always on the largest party in any coalition to carry along the smaller partners; the UPA allies have not, however, been exactly mindful of coalition dharma.
But the relationship that is crying for a most crucial re-assessment is that between the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress party. The depleting synergy between the two has been only too evident. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Congress president has realised how the Congressmen's capacity for petty politicking can haemorrhage the most crucial element in the government arrangement in New Delhi. The recently botched up "Project Mulayam" did no credit to anyone; nor, has the Congress leadership come out looking pretty in the Ottavio Quattrocchi mess. Unfortunately, the two principals have been too preoccupied with their personal image and neither has been sufficiently cognisant of the need for total political and policy cohesion in decision making at the very top.
The Congress, especially Ms. Sonia Gandhi, has many lessons to learn. As party president she is entitled to choose her advisers but then she must insist that the chosen ones function as the eyes and ears of the "high command" and not as factionalist intriguers. For instance, Punjab was overseen and monitored very poorly by the AICC headquarters. Rather than summoning every possible hand to the deck, the campaign overlords were busy settling scores. There was glee in the AICC that the Prime Minister's public meetings in Punjab were poorly attended as compared with Ms. Gandhi's rallies. This almost institutionalised small-mindedness reflects on the advisers around Ms. Gandhi at 24 Akbar Road.
The Punjab and Uttarakhand results should jolt the Congress leadership out of its comfort zone. A massive purge something like a Kamaraj Plan can no longer be delayed. In particular, Ms. Gandhi will need to let the party know what plans she has for her son, Rahul Gandhi. The current state of suspended expectations is demoralising to the cadres and the leaders alike. The party needs to be educated that young Rahul Gandhi has no magic wand, and that organisational revival hinges on hard work and dedication from one and all.
At the same time, the Congress president and her team will have to take down the mental wall of reservations and distance separating the party from the government. There is no reason for her to appear to be functioning at times as the Leader of the Opposition. Ms. Gandhi would be perfectly justified in demanding that the Finance Minister, the Commerce Minister, and other Ministers handling economic affairs stop functioning as if they need not be attentive to the Congress and its political and electoral needs.
Irrespective of whether the Congress, the UPA, or the Left are inclined to work towards a common political purpose or whether they will continue to speak and act divergently, the long countdown to the next Lok Sabha elections has begun. The Manmohan Singh government is already into the second half of its five-year term, and experienced hands feel the need for readying for the next battle.
Prudence and wisdom demand that the UPA and its supporting parties re-discover the rationale of the arrangement put together in May 2004. To begin with, care needs to be taken (especially within the Congress) that the Punjab setback is not dumped at Dr. Manmohan Singh's door. In other words, Congressmen and others will have to resist the temptation of doing to the Prime Minister what was done to P.V. Narasimha Rao after the Andhra Pradesh defeat; the party and the country suffered for rendering him a lame-duck Prime Minister.
The sense of unity and purpose among the Congress, the UPA, and the Left will get tested in the days to come, in Uttar Pradesh and the presidential election, eventually leading to the ultimate secular challenge, Gujarat. On the other hand, the Manmohan Singh government can still hope to reclaim the upper hand by getting a handle on prices, maintaining communal harmony, and by keeping the terrorists and separatists in Jammu and Kashmir from raising the ante. This is the time for garnering every bit of political energy to ensure the Centre is not denuded of its efficacy and respectability, and to clear any misperceptions about the Manmohan Singh government's abilities among forces, at home and abroad, which seek to exploit vacuum and uncertainty in New Delhi.