India’s 15th Lok Sabha election is just around the corner, with Indian voters set to cast their ballots between 16 April and 13 May in polling spread over five phases. In the midst of myriad timely issues – the post-Bombay attacks rhetoric has yet to die down, the full fallout of the economic crisis has yet to become clear, the strength of the recently composed left-led Third Front is yet to be understood – this period is historic in that four women are now in position to decide the country’s future. Two of these are strong candidates to take over as prime minister; one rising from the ashes of corruption in the south, the other from Uttar Pradesh and having risen with the backing of Dalits and ‘backward’ castes. The third declined the prime-ministership the last time around, and the fourth is a Bengal banshee who has gone into collaboration with the Congress.
The first, of course, is Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which rules today. Her significant competition has come up from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Her already highly anticipated showing has recently been given a fillip by the decision by the Third Front, being led by the left parties, to accept her as its leader, though without actually making a public declaration to this effect. Like a mantra, observers are repeating the traditional logic that, in India, the path to Delhi runs through UP, which holds 80 out of 545 Lok Sabha seats. Indeed, pundits enamoured with Mayawati’s chances have even taken to comparing her with that other from-the-underclass political phenomenon of the decade, Barack Obama.
The third woman is Jayalalitha, the head of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Although in 1999, the AIDMK won 18 seats in Parliament, in the last election Jayalalitha could not drum up even a single berth – likely because she was facing more than two dozen charges of corruption, which had caused a wave of public resentment against her. Nonetheless, this year many are suggesting that ‘Amma’ could hold the key to the prime-ministership, on the assumption that any winner in the national parliamentary elections will be forced to woo her to join a coalition. There are, after all, only two major parties in Tamil Nadu, and a significant part of Jayalalitha’s current strength lies in the fact that Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo and current Chief Minister Karunanidhi is now seen as quite weak, with Karunanidhi’s son Stalin having become embroiled in multiple disputes that have had the effect of defaming the DMK. According to some, Jayalalitha’s fortunes would benefit if Mayawati’s BSP does not do particularly well in UP, and in which case she would become the favoured candidate for the top job. This time, the Third Front is seeking a statesman who has the acceptance of all as prime minister. In UP, if Mayawati bags 30 or fewer seats out of 80, and Jayalalitha gets up to 25 out of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu, the parties may flock together to Jayalalitha.
Finally, Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress has established a remarkable base in West Bengal, has shaken hands with the Congress party, sharing seats in contesting elections in the state. The Nandigram and Singur protests against land acquisition for Special Economic Zones created widespread distaste with the Left Front, which has ruled for three decades, and this could certainly have an impact on national politics as well. It was the Trinamool Congress and another regional party, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), that were the main voices of this anti-incumbency movement, and it is in this context that the pre-poll alliance of Congress, Trinamool and SUCI must be seen.
This year’s election has been dominated by two issues – ‘terrorism’ and the economy, in particular the hike in prices and rising unemployment, both due to the global economic recession. The price of wheat has jumped from INR 8 per kg to INR 13 in recent times, and prices of pulses from INR 27 per kg to INR 52. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is attempting to capitalise on these issues, with the BJP having sidelined its core emotive platform of the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya. For its part, the NDA is comparing the market development that took place under the tenure of Atal Behari Vajpayee with what has taken place under this and other Congress-led governments, emphasising that Vajpayee’s government had been successful in controlling inflation. Even though its compatibility may be partial, the UPA is on the backfoot on this matter, and has sought to defend itself by saying that this was simply the result of the ups and downs of the market.
Somewhat surprisingly, the NDA is facing an uphill battle. Its previous allies – particularly the Biju Janata Dal, from Orissa, and the Trinamool Congress – have decided to leave the fold, anxious over being dubbed ‘anti-minority’ due to previous proximity to the BJP. While the alliance has gained a few additions, including the Indian National Lok Dal of Haryana and the Bharatiya Lok Dal of UP, these relatively small pick-ups will not outweigh the loss of the other two.
In the previous two parliamentary elections, it was thought that the ruling party would emerge victorious. However, the caste factor and regionalism have become so important that development issues and the functioning of government have become less critical in determining the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls. The last time around, the NDA fought the election on the slogan of ‘India Shining’, and many analysts felt sure that Vajpayee would again be prime minister. But the Congress itself was surprised with the result, and the UPA came to power. Overconfidence on the part of the BJP seemed to have made it slothful, thus resulting in a fall in its poll percentage. This time, the UPA is contesting on the catchy slogan of ‘Jai Ho’, the title of the song of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire – from a mantra chanted in ancient times to please the deity to what is meant to be a rousing plea to the masses.
A year ago, the UPA government was facing widespread public wrath due to price hikes, particularly of crude oil. But in the recent state assembly elections, the Congress fared surprisingly well. In Delhi it formed the government for the third consecutive time; and even did well in Jammu & Kashmir, considered difficult turf due to longstanding anti-New Delhi sentiment. It appeared that despite the BJP campaign plank of ‘development’, voters chose the Congress.
The parliamentary elections will be a confirmation of the need for coalitions with regional parties, and a time when voters may well forgive the Congress for not being culpable for the global meltdown. After the Bombay blasts, it was widely felt that the incumbent parties would be in a significantly diminished position. In the event, however, this is proving incorrect. The UPA is of the view that this apparent steadfast support on the part of the public has been due to the many development programmes launched by the central government over the past four years – such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the INR 630 million debt relaxation for farmers, the Swarnjayanti Rozgar Yojna and other employment avenues created in the public sector to tackle the global economic recession.
The left parties withdrew their support for the UPA ‘from the outside’ over the issue of the controversial civilian nuclear deal with the US, though the deal went forward anyway. Now, the left, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is throwing its weight behind a platform of small and regional parties, recently constituted into the ‘Third Front’. While its number currently amounts to 92 members of Parliament, the Third Front hopes for a rise to as much as 175 in the polls. In such a situation, the Congress would be compelled to seek the Front’s support in order to keep the BJP’s NDA from forming the government. In the last election, when the NDA was lacking 18 seats for a majority, the left parties, with 59 seats, became effective in central politics. In the name of secularism, the left extended support to the Congress, and the UPA was formed.
Much of the rest of the current political scene is hazy and complicated, with all parties and alliances facing internal conflicts. Stalwart George Fernandes, ex-convener of the NDA, has not even been given a ticket by the JDU. And in other unexpected moves, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and Lok Janashakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan share seats in Bihar, thus sidelining the Congress in this state, which has the next largest Lok Sabha seats after UP. In an obvious snub of the 42 seats, Congress has been allotted no more than three.
In the end, of course, only so much pre-poll analysis is helpful. The Congress has compromised with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in an attempt to weaken the Third Front. If the Third Front is only able to rustle up a few seats, it will collapse. Its leaders, however, are banking on the calculation that people are fed up with the BJP, and that, despite the dance with Mamata’s Trinamool, the Congress will give them a chance to form the government. At the moment, however, whether the left leads or it allows the Congress to lead, once again it appears that there will be a potent collaboration between these two forces.
~ Pratap Somvanshi is the resident editor of Amar Ujala in Kanpur.
Read also: April commentary on the upcoming elections in India.