If Big Two falter, the post-poll race is wide open

Updated on Sep 15, 2008 09:49 AM IST

If the UPA and NDA fall short of the numbers, parties in these coalitions may come out and join hands with regional players to form an alternative bloc, writes Pankaj Vohra.

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Hindustan Times | ByPankaj Vohra

Election preparations are well and truly off the block. The BJP’s National Executive meeting took place in Bangalore while the extended working committee of the Congress met in Delhi on Saturday. Both the major players who are coalition leaders have set their sights on the big one (Lok Sabha polls) even though assembly elections to at least four states are due in November-December.

The two formations—the UPA that is in power at the Centre and the NDA that hopes to return to power after the next polls are essentially assessing the ground situation at the moment. The third alternative—a loose conglomeration of some regional parties at present, is also expected to be a major player and could actually cause a major upset in the eventuality of a fractured mandate.

It is more or less certain that Manmohan Singh will be the UPA’s prime ministerial nominee notwithstanding the Congress tradition of not naming its leader before the polls. The UPA will, in fact, go into the finale riding on the achievements (or failures) of his government. Similarly, the BJP had declared L.K.Advani as its prime ministerial nominee even though the RSS has of late been having second thoughts about this choice. In all probability, he will remain the spearhead of the campaign.

Many in the BJP feel that had he been open to the idea of someone else heading the alternative government, the UPA regime could have been over as far back as last year when the Presidential elections took place. But he stood his ground and some of the erstwhile socialists who could have rocked the UPA boat steered clear of the vicious power play that ensued.

Elections are the time when each side comes to its own assessments and figure out their differing calculations. In 2004, no one had imagined that the NDA would be voted out of power. I, for instance, was perhaps the only one in the media who thought otherwise. I had written six months before the polls that AB Vajpayee should not go in for early elections as the NDA was bound to lose. The same thought was subsequently repeated as the writing was on the wall when the India Shining and ``feel good factor’’ gobbledygook propagated by the late Pramod Mahajan and his team began to fall on deaf ears. The middle class was disillusioned. But no one believed that this would happen.

The polls will be held within the next six months, maybe in four months depending on the Election Commission’s preparations and the calculations of the ruling dispensation on whether or not to go ahead on the basis of the recent success of the nuclear deal and many other achievements. This may not necessarily translate into a political advantage for the UPA but this is a call it will have to take. But politics gets exciting only when those who play the game take risks in the hope of consolidating their position. Although anything can happen from now till the election gets underway, situations on the ground can change drastically. There are reasons to believe that the country is headed for a period of instability. This instability could make the life of the 15th Lok Sabha as short as that of the 12th Lok Sabha which was dissolved after Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence by one vote. The reason for this projected instability is not far to seek. Instability implies that neither of the two formations, in their present avatar, may be in a position to constitute the government.

It is both unfortunate for these formations and for the country as the absence of a major national party as the nucleus of the government can lead to problems that cannot be easily foreseen. It helps the enemies of this country to see an unstable situation. International players could even take advantage of such a grim turn of events. The two major coalitions may not agree with this assessment but this is a very likely scenario.

This brings us to the question as to what may happen if the UPA and the NDA fall short of the numbers. This could well be the case if the Congress and the BJP secure less than 15 seats each in undivided UP (including Uttaranchal) and Bihar (including Jharkhand) which account for 139 seats. The projection at the national level will reflect these dismal results and between the two rival parties, the combined tally may not exceed the 250 mark.

If such a situation emerges, it is likely that the two fronts may crumble after the elections and the third alternative may than take concrete shape. In other words, parties within the UPA and NDA fold may come out and join hands with some regional players and form a strong bloc within Parliament.

In such an eventuality, the Congress that may still be the largest single party could be compelled to support the regional forces in order to keep the BJP out. If it does not, the regional forces may not have any qualms about seeking support from the BJP, the second largest party. The result: a dark horse as the Prime Minister. Something similar to what happened in 1996-97 when first Deve Gowda and then I.K.Gujral became PMs, except that this time around the PM could be a more experienced and bigger national player.

It is, of course, premature to make a definitive pronouncement, but as political activities unfold, politicians work on various hypothetical situations. This is one of them. This could happen if things do not change too drastically over the next few months. But one fact is unchanging -- India is headed for a period of instability. Between us.

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