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Gujarat polls hold the key

The perception created after the two Congress leaders' assertions that the government would last its full term will not change the situation, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2007 19:35 IST
Pankaj Vohra

As the political uncertainty continues, the Congress appears to have suddenly come under pressure. With the Election Commission having announced dates for the assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, two states where the BJP is still perceived to be strong, the Congress will have to review its strategy for the anticipated mid-term polls, given that relations with the Left are not about to improve.

The perception created after Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi’s assertions that the government would last its full term will, possibly, not change the situation. The Left may not respond favourably to the offer of accommodation extended to them to take forward the Indo-US nuclear deal. The two Congress leaders have tried to deflect the Left’s accusation against their party that it was trying to foist a national election on the people.

Instead, they have created a situation where, if the Left does not fall in line with the deal, it will be seen as the one responsible for mid-term polls. Some political analysts feel that polls to the Lok Sabha (LS) should have been held along with the Gujarat polls. A worst case scenario of losing to the BJP in that state would put the Congress and the UPA on the backfoot. Although Narendra Modi’s position in the state is not as strong as it was the last time and neither is the faction-ridden saffron brigade as formidable as in previous years, still, in elections parties have to be prepared to face any kind of eventuality. The Congress calculation has been that it shall win Gujarat, but this cannot be said with certainty.

Therefore, if the BJP wins Gujarat and follows it with a victory in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress could be in serious trouble. A Himachal win appears to be a foregone conclusion unless the tussle between Shanta Kumar and P.K. Dhumal gives the Congress a chance. Presuming it would lose both states, its momentum to face a LS poll would be diminished. Fresh efforts would be needed to re-energise workers across the country.

Those who argue that polls should be delayed do not take into account that this year’s winter session may prove to be a non-starter. Proceedings may be held up everyday on one issue or the other. Then the treasury benches may have nothing to rejoice about. It is also true that UPA allies like the NCP, the RJD and the DMK as well as some Congress leaders in the LS do not want an election. The Congress must choose the timing of the polls to suit itself. The party will be at a disadvantage if elections are held when the BJP can consolidate its position nationally.

What could become a matter of concern for the Congress is that both the top leaders — Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi — have come out openly in support of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Lending her support to the Prime Minister’s earlier assertion, Sonia Gandhi even described opponents of the deal as opponents of development and progress. However, for reasons best known to the Congress, an attempt was made to play down her remarks in Haryana in stating that they were made in the local context.

Sonia Gandhi is not a regional leader. Whatever she says, whether in the UN or in a small Indian village, always has deep political significance. In any case, she was shown reading out her speech. Her remarks were not made off-the-cuff but with due consideration.

Therefore, in trying to play down what she said, Congress party strategists may have bungled. The PM and Sonia Gandhi’s stated positions make it evident that the Congress is bent upon pushing this deal even if it means going into a mid-term poll, notwithstanding their latest remarks. Prospects of the deal falling through and the Congress losing power at the Centre are both in the realm of speculation. It is in view of this that a damage control exercise was carried out where both leaders gave the impression that they were ready to accommodate the Left’s viewpoint.

The delay in taking an appropriate decision and allowing matters to linger may help in isolating the Left. But it is likely to hurt the Congress as well. Public perception may view this as a case of dilly-dallying on the deal and compromising with allies in order to retain power. If one has to take forward Sonia Gandhi’s aggressive stand at the UN and in Haryana, the logical corollary would have been to take a firm and categorical stand on the issue. Not all Congress leaders are dependent on Left support to get elected. Further, public opinion appears to be in favour of the nuclear deal. If presented as a means to development, it will strike a chord everywhere. If the deal were to fall through, then the government will find it difficult to continue in its present form. The ambiguity of the Congress’s stand is also giving time to parties like the BSP to flex its muscles. Mayawati has already asked her cadres to be prepared to face the polls and has attacked the Centre for not releasing enough development funds. Her broadside against a top Congress functionary for what she described as hobnobbing with Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh was unnecessary and uncalled for.

But that is how Mayawati operates. She is going to hurt the Congress both in Gujarat as well as in Himachal and elsewhere, too, since her vote-bank is similar to what the Congress vote-bank was at its peak. Had there been a mid-term poll simultaneously, Mayawati may have been confined to UP where she would have wanted to consolidate her position by bagging more than 50 out of the 80 LS seats. Big players know how to exploit openings. Second, the BJP is on a sticky wicket. And if the party wins in Gujarat and Himachal, it will get rejuvenated to take on the Congress. In this context, one wonders why the EC was in a hurry to hold polls in Himachal along with Gujarat when the election could have been delayed till February. But ex-bureaucrats holding constitutional positions often have their own way of looking at things.

However, one thing is certain. The season of politics has begun. The next few months will test political players and their abilities to both play and stay on in the game. The Gujarat polls, in particular, will be the big match, which will perhaps determine the future course of major political parties. Between us.