NEW DELHI | 25th Mar
The Congress considers Hamid Ansari to be ‘reliable’. AFP
he Congress high command, comprising Congress president Sonia Gandhi and AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi, assisted by political secretary Ahmad Patel, is finding it difficult to reconcile overtures to the Samajwadi Party (SP) and its rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Given the backroom parleys taking place between Mamata Banerjee and elements of the NDA, Congress managers would like to have both firmly on its side. In practice, this means that neither can be offered concessions that would render the other hostile to the Congress, which is the reason why parleys with the SP over formally joining the UPA failed. Were the SP to become part of the ruling alliance, similar terms would need to be offered to the BSP.
As the SP would be satisfied with nothing less than the "DMK standard" of at least two Cabinet-level berths as well as three or four Minister of State slots, it would not be possible to similarly accommodate the BSP, unless some Congress nominees were dropped from the Council of Ministers. The Congress president is averse to surrendering any of the "navaratna" portfolios (such as Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance), whereas SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav has indicated that he would not settle for anything less than the Defence portfolio or the Deputy Prime Ministership. Giving him the first is out of the question, given the numerous procurement deals awaiting finalisation, while conceding the latter would annoy Sharad Pawar, whose Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has thus far refrained from any tantrum and seems, as a consequence, to have been ignored even in decisions involving his ministry, such as the cotton export ban.
After discovering that the Congress would not concede his wish list, Mulayam has focused on the Left parties, hoping to recreate an alliance that has worked for him in the past. Thus, the CPI and the CPI(M) may finally be getting a post-2009 Lok Sabha polls role within the periphery of the ruling alliance, after having switched in 2011 from DMK to AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Any further closeness between the Left and the UPA would further alienate the Trinamool Congress, for whom enmity with the CPI and CPI(M) is non-negotiable. Already, Trinamool leaders are wary of increased contacts between the Congress and the Left, a factor that is making them look once again towards the NDA as a future partner. This has been made possible because control of the BJP by the "moderates" represented by L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari has ensured that the Hindutva plank of the BJP has been discarded in favour of a platform promising "good and clean governance".
Unfortunately for the BJP, events in Uttarakhand and Karnataka do not inspire confidence in the party's commitment to such a course, with B.S. Yeddyurappa likely to return as CM. Those active in the state unit of the BJP claim that the former CM had installed three currency counting machines in a Dollar Colony house, to ensure that the "payments made by individuals met the required specifications". However, this report is strongly contested by those close to the deposed BJP strongman. As for former Uttarakhand CM Ramesh Pokhriyal, there are reports that at least six Congress candidates were assisted in their campaign by his munificence, although thus far, no action has been taken by the BJP to investigate those charges.
he entry of former BSP minister B.S. Kushwaha into the BJP, now acknowledged as a mistake, had the sanction of key elements of the national leadership. Their logic was that "as forwards are anyway with the BJP, let us try and get the backwards in as well". Uma Bharti's inclusion in the UP campaign was part of this strategy, she being seen as a backward caste leader rather than as a Hindutva icon. The focus on the backward castes was a consequence of analysis of the damage down by Kalyan Singh to the BJP's Assembly prospects in 2002, where then Chief Minister Rajnath Singh and his party got humiliated in the Assembly polls, with a mere 83 seats, a figure that dropped to 51 in 2007. The party was hoping for a tally of at least 75 seats in 2012, because of the four-way contest and its new "backward" strategy. Instead, it ended up with just 47, even less than in 2007, and joining the BSP as the two parties that lost vote share to rivals. In Uttarakhand and Punjab as well, the BJP lost seats, from 36 to 31 and 19 to 12 respectively, because of the dilution in its "clean and good governance" image caused by the Yeddyurappa and Kushwaha episodes and by the infighting made possible by a weakened central leadership bereft of governmental power.
In its efforts to avoid a midpoll, the Congress leadership is relying on the lack of readiness of both the Left as well as the BJP to fight another general election. This lack of enthusiasm is clear in the Left, which is likely to get further reduced in numbers in West Bengal and Kerala, but is not as strong in the BJP. That party senses a mood of anti-Congressism that is percolating across at least the urban areas of the country, a factor that explained Congress losses even in Mumbai, a city where it had the benefit of alliance with the NCP and a ruling Shiv Sena-BJP combine widely seen as ineffectual in tackling the problems of the city. However, the BJP has yet to resolve who will replace A.B. Vajpayee as the standard bearer for national polls, with as many as four candidates on the shortlist of probables. These are Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi. Age has excluded L.K. Advani from the list, while his numerous missteps have severely weakened Nitin Gadkari within the BJP, even though he remains the favourite of RSS supremo Mohanrao Bhagwat. That Gadkari is a resident of Nagpur and a frequent visitor to the RSS HQ has added to his appeal to Bhagwat. Interestingly, however, even Modi is distancing himself from the Hindutva plank, focusing instead on "inclusive governance" and an avoidance of caste and communal tensions in his state. This move towards a platform that does not exclude the minorities is seen as key to the expansion of the NDA and its return to office by 2014.
The Congress is relying on the fear of early elections of the Left and sections of the NDA to prevent a meltdown before the 2014 polls. Such opposition is expected to overcome the disruptive effect of parties that may welcome early polls, such as the Akali Dal, the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress and the SP. What needs to be kept in mind that within the BJP as well, there is a section that is calling for early Lok Sabha polls, as the party is expected to do well in Congress-ruled states such as Rajasthan and Maharashtra, besides hold its own in the Hindi belt. Once again, the focus is moving to the July election of the President of India. Should a candidate who can resist Congress blandishments get elected, the stability of the UPA would come under threat. The Congress leadership is, therefore, paying attention to ensuring that the balancing act between the SP and the BSP continues, even while it seeks to appease the Trinamool Congress. Once it gets a reliable candidate in as Head of State, such as current favourite Vice-President Hamid Ansari, the party high command will have greater freedom to manoeuvre.
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