By Arab News
By M.J. Akbar
The opposition BJP has a splitting headache in expectation of power. The first is serious. The second is silly.
Indian politics is aghast at the extraordinary sight of leaders with long experience of office, like P. Chidambaram and Narendra Modi, struck by this nonpartisan disease called impatience, with a subsidiary side-effect known as petulance. Chidambaram is affected by a deliberate loss of memory at a press conference; while Modi cannot recall the dates of the BJP national committee meeting. The Congress malady is serious because governance at New Delhi has become dysfunctional. As for the BJP, someone should inform its more aspiring leaders that the Indian voter tends to punish those who believe they have won the election before the electorate has voted.
The Congress is down, but certainly does not count itself out of the reckoning in the next general election. Its strategy is built on five steps, linked by the logic of hope. The starting point is the generosity of the voter’s memory. Congress trusts that it will be short. Second, that public anger will be assuaged by the passage of the Lokpal Bill. Some of its senior strategists even dream of receiving an endorsement from the man they first insulted and then sent to jail, Anna Hazare. Third: Congress has convinced itself that corruption is not a gut issue, just a surface rash that can be massaged away with a little ameliorative balm. Fourth: The party believes that present ills can be dumped on the reputation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who will be eased out not because of individual culpability but because of political mismanagement. Congress also believes that any residual association with the heir, Rahul Gandhi, can be scrubbed out of public consciousness with the lather of high-profile public welfare schemes, sequenced out of the Reserve Bank mint if budgetary resources prove to be inadequate. This, the fifth step, can launch the process of midterm correction after a successful Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. The turning point of the last elections, the party believes, came with the waiver of agricultural loans, although facts do not necessarily justify this conclusion: It was the urban vote which took the tally beyond 200. Nevertheless, this is the perception, and perceptions matter.
The key is the expected bounce from the UP elections, which Congress believes will be strong enough to propel Rahul Gandhi to the prime ministership. The key to this key is the management of expectations. Congress has, in fact, given up any hope of repeating its excellent UP performance in the general elections, when it won a rough equivalent of 120 assembly seats. In 2012, it is prepared to declare triumph if it gets anything in the region of 60 assembly seats, hoping to wrest them from Mayawati by focusing its attack on her. It will not be as abrasive about Mulayam Singh Yadav, as it needs a post-election ally. However, it is not going to be too fussy; if Mayawati offers the better deal in terms of portfolios, Congress will align with Mayawati. Congress believes that these magic 60 seats will open the door to power in Lucknow, since no party will get a majority on its own, and it can then leverage this power to woo the electorate in preparation for the Rahul Gandhi election of 2014. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi will be stars of the UP Assembly campaign next year, with the latter in full play across the state. Priyanka will also contest the next general election from her mother Sonia’s constituency, Rae Bareli.
This is the sort of theorizing that ensures a good night’s sleep for Congress leaders, and persuades them to dismiss the Anna Hazare nightmare to a passing phenomenon rather than a permanent reality.
Realists within the BJP are also convinced that the impetus of their current upward mobility will depend on their performance in UP. Their minimum target is 80 seats. Both the BJP and the Congress cannot do well. The current expectation among political observers, rather than politicians, is that Mulayam, Mayawati and the smaller parties will win more than 300 seats between them, leaving around a hundred for BJP and Congress. Only one of them can be a respectable 60 or a bouncy 80.
Alas, if politicians, who live close to the grass, never know what is really going to happen in an election, columnists know even less. When the results come in, these numbers and assessments may have as little to do with facts as gossip has to do with the truth. What is relevant is that this is the speculation which is driving Congress toward its plans for the next two years, which are going to be difficult for the party even if all goes well, and disastrous if things go awry.
The only thing that is certain about the UP elections and their impact on Delhi is that no one is certain.