While everything else about Election 2009 remains unclear, there is one incontestable fact. Mathematics will determine the mandate, more than passion, principles or performance. It’s a somewhat ironic fact for a country that was swept by raw emotion in the aftermath of the attacks in Bombay. But, this is quite simply an election without (to borrow a favourite phrase from our friends across the border) a core issue.
The Congress — usually adamant about not projecting a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister in any election — has broken with history and made it clear who their man for the job is. So, theoretically, the punchy face-offs between a newly aggressive Manmohan Singh and his chief challenger, L.K. Advani, should have provided for some polarised voter choices. But this isn’t America and ‘Presidential’ debates won’t make or break political opinion.
For Manmohan Singh it’s entirely legitimate to seek a second term based on the performance of his government. But there’s just one small problem with that: the UPA doesn’t exist anymore. In fact it’s beginning to look like a house of cards. Its railway minister — Sonia Gandhi’s erstwhile favourite — has joined hands with two old foes to create a secular front. The alliance with the health minister — the man most famous for stopping cigarettes — has gone up in smoke. The agriculture minister is said to be plotting secret revenge for the aborted Indian Premier League, when he is not flirting with Bal Thackeray. Mamata Banerjee is with the Congress right now, but she has never been known for consistency. In other words, a party can’t quite seek reaffirmation from India’s voters, based on the performance of an alliance government, when several of those allies have either left or could leave any day after the polls.
In several states, it’s not so much the revenge of the allies as it is a deliberate decision by Congress strategists — said to be led by Rahul Gandhi — that it makes more sense to strengthen the party at the base. In states like UP and Bihar, for example, the calculation is that there is not that much to lose anyway except for a handful of seats. Better that, they argue, than to be placed at the mercy of multiple satraps and their individual fiefs. The cadres like the logic, but then, as Lalu Prasad Yadav quipped, “is this a plan for 2014 or 2009?”
The Congress has reason to believe that many of the breakaway partners will return to the marriage once the heat and dust have settled. And beyond the bluster of the smaller parties, that could well happen. But the Congress’s bargaining power will strictly depend on its numerical strength. Otherwise, look out for more friends-turn-enemy-turn- friends-again alliances and an expiry date on two words — ideology and loyalty. As A.B. Bardhan jokingly told me while arguing that the Left bloc was already in touch with key Congress allies, “Paswan is a good friend who often sends me different kinds of fish.” He meant it gastronomically, not politically. Really.
But in the fish fry that is Indian politics, the ‘third alternative’ can hardly boast of stability or cohesion. First, there is the Left’s own weakened positions in both Kerala and West Bengal. Then, there are the two mercurial, unpredictable women — Mayawati and Jayalalithaa — who could switch sides without apology or explanation. Even the big coup — luring Naveen Patnaik out of the NDA — needs to be sustained after the elections. Patnaik has not said yes, yet, to formally joining the Front.
The BJP is grappling with gluing together its own fissures. The rift between its campaign manager and party president hasn’t helped matters. And now the Varun Gandhi controversy is in danger of splitting its allies down the middle. L.K. Advani has tried hard to re-style the BJP into fighting the campaign on issues of governance, security and development. He has described Hindutva as issue- based; a way of thinking and not a political strategy.
But Varun’s hate speech has tarred the party, and most leaders privately concede this. The BJP may publicly defend Varun but, in a sense, the controversy is just one huge headache for them. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. And if the Congress is suffering from vanishing allies, the BJP has hardly been doing well in the friends department either.
It’s safe to say that nobody knows what will happen next. If there is one prediction that can be made, however, it is this: anti-incumbency is becoming less and less relevant. Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi have already proved that. Delhi delivered a Congress victory despite the fact that voting took place right on the heels of 26/11.
So can anything be ruled out in this quicksand of politics? Well, the BJP and the Congress will never join hands. Nor will Mulayam and Mayawati, or Jayalalithaa and the DMK. And the Left won’t support another government headed by Manmohan Singh.
Other than that, anything is possible. And you will just have to wait on the edge of your seat for the last reel. Who needs Twenty20 cricket, when you have elections?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.