Presidential defeat likely for Congress after ‘Ides of March’ (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT NEW DELHI | 4th Mar
An elderly couple show their marked fingers after casting their votes at a polling booth in Mathura on Tuesday. PTI
The Congress and the UPA are in trouble over the next election for Indian President, due in July this year. Although well short of a majority on its own, the Congress has functioned as though it ran the government by itself. Whenever a sticky situation arises, the excuse of "coalition dharma" gets trotted out. However, the reality is that the "navratna" portfolios of PM, Finance, Home, External Affairs and Defence is held by the Congress, while party members are both Speaker of the Lok Sabha as well as Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. The top troika of ministers — Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony and P. Chidambaram — have operated in close consultation with the party HQ, located at 10 Janpath rather than at 24 Akbar Road, with the first two openly undertaking regular political missions on behalf of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Despite his seniority in politics, even NCP chieftain Sharad Pawar has been placed in a supporting role, while in Delhi, the political involvement of the Trinamool Congress and the DMK in decision-making has been reduced to insignificance by the departure of Mamata Banerjee to Kolkata and the legal travails of Karunanidhi's nominees in government. Neither the SP nor the BSP are given even the pretence of consultation on major issues, despite providing the numbers needed to keep the UPA in a majority.
This being the case, few tears will be shed within the rest of the UPA and its supporters, should the Congress do badly on 6 March by coming last in UP and not retaining Goa and wresting at least Punjab or Uttarakhand from the NDA. Although both ought to have been easy, especially the hill state, given that the BJP delayed replacing Ramesh Pokhriyal for a year after it was clear that his administration was a liability for the party, there are indications of a fight-back by the ruling parties. In Goa, the alliance with MGP has given BJP's Manohar Parrikar (who has an image as clean as that of Uttarakhand's B.C. Khanduri and Gujarat's Narendra Modi) the edge, despite the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by the Congress in the minority vote bank. In UP, the Congress is battling to replace the BJP in the third position in the polls, but this seems unlikely. The push for minority reservations has had a negative effect on upper caste voters, while the entry of the Jat-dominated RLD into the Congress fold seems to have lost the party the support of several caste groups at loggerheads with Ajit Singh's virile caste. Even the strident advocacy of reservation for minorities has not helped much in wooing Muslims to the Congress fold, for the reason that they may lose out to other minorities (such as the Sikhs, Jains and Christians) in competing for the jobs made available, just as the main beneficiary of the reservation for Scheduled Tribes has been the (relatively more affluent) Meena community in North India.
Three Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi, J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, have each been working for a coming together of all Opposition groups against "Congress arrogance and dominance". Strategists backing them, expecting a poor Congress performance on 6 March, are working towards a reversal of 1969, when Indira Gandhi defeated the official Congress candidate, N. Sanjiva Reddy, in the presidential elections. The narrow victory of V.V. Giri ensured her supremacy over both the party as well as the country. Given the vote distribution in the Electoral College for the 19 July election, the expectation is that a non-controversial nominee of a united Opposition will easily sail to victory. Among the names being discussed are Mr Metro E. Sridharan, Agronomist M.S. Swaminathan, Songstress Lata Mangeshkar and former President Abdul Kalam. Even Wipro boss Azim Premji has been talked about as a candidate, who would represent the new face of the Indian economy, besides being from the minority community. However, those looking at such options are awaiting the results of the Assembly polls before entering into talks with any of the nominees.
The Congress and its "reliable" allies have about 400,000 votes in the Electoral College, while the NDA has about 300,000. The Left plus the TDP has about 120,000, while those now backing the Congress, but who are known to be unhappy at the treatment meted out to them (a list that includes the NCP, the Trinamool Congress, the DMK, the SP and the BSP) have nearly 200,000 votes. Should a candidate get fielded who would command the support of this grouping as well as that of the NDA and the Left, he or she would sail through to a comfortable victory. Why would Congress allies support an Opposition candidate? Reason: in order to stop the dominant party within the UPA from "taking us for granted", in the words of a leader of one of the disaffected parties. They would like "greater consultation on all crucial decisions, instead of now, when only Sonia Gandhi is in the picture and we read about the decision in the newspapers".
Given the vote distribution in the Electoral College for the 19 July election, the expectation is that a non-controversial nominee of a united Opposition will easily sail to victory.
UP is the primary arena of battle. The Congress is relying on the Jat vote bank of Ajit Singh and the RLD to push ahead of the BJP. However, this caste is present in only 54 constituencies, with less than two dozen of these being those where it alone could tilt the scales. Hence the 45 seats given to the RLD seem to be based on an overestimate of its vote-pulling abilities, besides turning off many other voters. As for Muslim voters, the group that the Congress has been concentrating on the most, they are the most populous segment in about 170 Assembly constituencies and in the second position in another 75, thereby giving them enormous leverage. While this may turn into a disadvantage in the case of a communally polarised election (as got Varun Gandhi his impressive victory in Pilibhit in 2009), it can become the deciding factor only if the community votes largely for a single party. This seems unlikely, with the Muslim vote getting distributed amongst the Congress, the SP, the BSP and now the Peace Party.
Although pundits have been confidently predicting an SP-Congress tie-up in UP, a formal alliance to run the state would lead to the shift of the BSP firmly into the Opposition column, an eventuality that the Congress would like to avoid, at least till the presidential elections are over. Hence, Sriprakash Jaiswal may have been correct in talking of President's Rule in UP. The trouble for the ruling party is that, come 19 July, the President may be from the Opposition.