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And the winner is...

Politics of compromise leads inevitably to a concentration on the coalition leader.
PTI | By Bhaskar Ghose
UPDATED ON APR 24, 2004 11:03 AM IST

The alarums and excursions have died out by now, or are doing so gradually all over the country. The loudspeakers are falling silent, the posters and banners are being allowed to turn into rags and tatters as the hot winds of summer blow about them. The groups of frenzied slogan-shouters are taking a breather, waiting for the results to be declared.

Analysts have been busy for some time now trying to forecast trends, trying to determine which combine will win, which party will win, who will lose and why. There is an inherent danger in this exercise, but we will leave that aside for the present, and look at another, more basic and possibly more vital issue — what this election is about.

Time was when elections centred around the manifestos that parties published and dinned into the ears of the public. Whether they themselves believed in them is a moot point. Perhaps some of them did. But that age seems to be receding. Not because there are no manifestos. There are, even if they’re called by different names — common minimum programme, vision statement, or whatever. But these have tended to become documents that are more complicated than they need to be, and certainly not simple enough for the people to comprehend clearly. Which underscores the basic point — that these documents don’t really matter. Irrespective of what the spin doctors, or ‘election strategists’ as they are euphemistically called, may say.

In a recent TV programme, I said that these documents weren’t worth the paper they were written on and Pramod Mahajan, also on the programme, went ballistic, claiming he didn’t understand what I was saying. Natwar Singh was less aggressive, but also maintained that manifestos were very carefully drafted, that much thought went into their drafting and so on. No one is denying that a great deal of work goes into drafting the documents; what one is saying is — and both Mahajan and Singh know this to be true — is that no one pays any attention to these during the election campaign.

The campaigns as we have seen them or read about them bear eloquent testimony to this. The BJP has used the image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and selectively bits from their ‘India Shining’ campaign, which is more about India feeling good than a manifesto. The Congress has studiously avoided projecting a leader — even though we, (and they) know very well who she is — merely to avoid the foreign origin issue. They have, instead, concentrated on what they consider the negative aspects of the NDA government’s record. Neither has referred to the actual documents they have produced, nor have the people who have come to their meetings shown much interest in the documents. Inevitably, they have been looking at who exactly the leader is.

The BJP has cannily seen this and projected Vajpayee. The Congress, too, has seen this and hence the attack on his record in the freedom movement. (This, incidentally, appears a little curious. Vajpayee was a 16-year-old boy at the time, and in those days families were much more conservative — children actually did what they were told to by their parents or elders. Whatever he did or didn’t do must surely be seen in the light of what a teenager may or may not have done. He certainly wasn’t a leader or a political strategist like Mahajan then.)

The Congress, on the other hand, has been bending over backwards in trying to avoid projecting Sonia Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate. This is obviously because of their anxiety to avoid any differences with their coalition partners. In other words, they have compromised on this issue just as the BJP has compromised on the Ayodhya issue, Hindutva and much else for exactly the same reason. Because they were and are terribly anxious to avoid mentioning something that might cause a rift in their ‘alliance’.

In other words, what has really happened is that both parties concluded before the elections that they could not ever hope to win on their own — even though Vajpayee keeps saying he wants a ‘clear’ mandate, that is a straight majority for the BJP by itself. His statement about being tired of leading a coalition may not be officially endorsed, but he did make it, and he did use it to ask for a clear mandate for the BJP.

Given that conclusion that both parties came to, they sought allies, and allies or coalitions mean, inevitably, a compromise on ideological positions. The politics of compromise leads again inevitably to a concentration on the leader of the coalition or group. For almost 20 years — or is it more? — the 14-party coalition called the Left Front which has ruled West Bengal projected Jyoti Basu as the leader. Ideology took second place, the leader was the key issue. And they won.

Now they have Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and it’s interesting that in his case, too, the campaigns the Left Front launches projects him as the leader. That is above everything else; because they know people understand who a neta is. What that neta stands for may be a little bewildering and fuzzy.

This is, then, what seems to be the core issue. The age of coalitions is upon us, and that means less room for ideological manoeuvring, and that means that what will hold a coalition together more than a bland manifesto (that, in trying to please all, may please none) is a leader. Hence the BJP’s projection of  Vajpayee, and declarations from parties allied to the BJP that they endorse Vajpayee as leader. And this is where the Congress’s strategy seems inexplicable. They, too, have had to recognise that, in keeping their group of parties going they need to compromise on some aspects of their stated ideology.

The basics may be the same but in some details, or specifics, they have had to look the other way or resort to some casuistry. They needed, then, to identify and project a leader of the group. That would have given their coalition, or group, a degree of credibility, and, more importantly, it would have given the candidates something concrete to place before the people. The logic of first winning — if they do manage to do that — and then deciding who the leader will be is not something that will convince people at large, even though we see what the compulsions are behind it.

It is this one factor that may well cost them dear. They have to accept that if we are going to live with coalitions — and it looks like we will have to for some time — then that will mean compromises on many issues. In a situation of that sort the only way to keep a credible government going is to identify a leader acceptable to the group who will lead from the front.

This is where, eventually, the Congress must make up its mind on whether it will continue to look to its First Family as dynastic leaders or cast their net wider and let leadership emerge from within the many talented, and gifted, people they have. Who the leader is is crucial. We may have the trappings of parliamentary democracy, but in the age of coalitions, our’s is not very different from a presidential election. In one corner of the ring, there’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee; in the other — who?

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