Without anyone wanting it, a mid-term poll seems inevitable. The race is on to control the pace and timing of the countdown.
On August 7, 2007 the Left Parties, which help the United Progressive Alliance government make up its parliamentary majority, presented a demarche to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: do not operationalise the 123 civilian nuclear agreement with the United States. On its part, the government till this day has not categorically told its allies — or the world — that it has conceded the demand. Since then, a number of Left leaders are reported to have said they were neither in favour of a mid-term poll nor for destabilising the government. Whatever these leaders’ preferences, the new byte-a-minute culture of public discourse has created a perception of a rupture between the UPA and the four Left parties, a rupture that is probably beyond repair.
At the same time, the Manmohan Singh government can no longer pretend that nothing has changed or that it continues to have the same elbow room as it did before the August 7 demarche. Neither the foreign interlocutors nor the domestic rivals are going to concede to the government the pre-August 7 deference.
It is also obvious that prolonged uncertainty cannot be allowed to become the defining characteristic of the ruling arrangement in New Delhi. Politically, strategically and administratively, it would not do for the government to carry on in the face of the palpable fact that it no longer commands a majority in the Lok Sabha, at least on the nuclear agreement issue.
The government does not have the luxury of simply jettisoning the 123 agreement to resume its happy political marriage with the Left either. It cannot afford to acknowledge openly that it survives purely at the Left’s mercy. Either way, it finds itself in a politically untenable situation, and the only way forward is to go back to the people to seek a fresh mandate.
For the immediate future, the Congress managers’ design is apparent: put the odium for a mid-term poll on the opposition. The Left parties appear to have seen through the game —and hence the “it is for the Congress to decide” refrain.
The Congress, too, has a reputation to nurse: it is a party of stability and knows the art of governing this complex nation, and knows how to carry along difficult alliance partners. The strategic decision on when to go to the polls is for the Congress and its leadership to make, though of course the UPA allies will be shown the courtesy of serious and sincere consultation.
The race is on to control the pace and timing of the countdown to the mid-term poll. However, a few judgment calls will have to be made by the various players.
One, there is no “Tony Blair option.” During the standoff between the Left and the government, there was ill-advised talk of a “Tony Blair option.” The Left parties managed to create the impression that it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — and not the 123 agreement — who had become the insurmountable problem because he had made the agreement a personal project. This theme is now discernible in all the Left arguments too. But it should be clear that Pranab Mukherjee is no Gordon Brown. Nor can he be an alternative to Manmohan Singh. The unvarnished fact is — as it was in May 2004 — that it is for Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, to decide who should be the Congress prime ministerial nominee. And Mr. Mukherjee does not make the cut, whichever way you slice it.
The Congress cannot allow other parties, however friendly and well-meaning, to interfere so blatantly in its internal affairs. The lessons of the recent presidential and vice-presidential polls have been learnt — and learnt well and bitterly. In fact, the Left parties probably have done Dr. Singh a great favour: he will be the prime ministerial face as and when the Congress seeks a fresh mandate.
Two. For the Congress, its principal electoral rival on the big national screen remains the Bharatiya Janata Party. Neither the Left nor the elusive Third Front will be able to pose as the national alternative to the Congress. Therefore, the Congress leadership will have to make a judgment about the nature of internal crisis in the BJP — will it intensify over the next six or eights months or will it be able to sort itself out and present a coherent leadership profile by the time of the next Lok Sabha polls?
Will an early poll help stoke L.K. Advani’s prime ministerial ambitions, which in turn should deepen the internal schism in the BJP as well as activate the existing fault-lines within the National Democratic Alliance? Will the Congress be better off with Mr. Advani as the BJP’s prime ministerial mascot or will its task be made easier if Narendra Modi is able to work his way to the top of the BJP’s hierarchy, say, six months after the Gujarat poll? Will Mr. Advani be able to revive the BJP’s nuclear nationalist constituency? And, can the traditional anti-Muslim prejudices be blended in with this revival?
Three. The Congress establishment will need to make another judgment call: when will the anti-incumbency sentiment start kicking in, if it has not already set in? For better or worse, the Congress establishment has not yet shown any sign of falling for the “India shining” syndrome. There is an acute awareness of the incipient popular unhappiness — if not active resentment — with the government at the Centre. Too many uncertainties — the monsoon, estimates of wheat production, its impact on the food prices — are to be factored in. Perhaps things can only go down for the government from now on. Hence it is time to cut the losses and go for an early poll.
Four. Is the Congress party prepared for the polls? Strangely enough, this question does not bother the Congressmen much. For a decade now, the Congress leadership has not deemed it sufficiently important to attend to any kind of organisational restoration work, and the accent remains on Ms. Gandhi’s patchy charisma. The Rahul Gandhi factor is only adding to the present state of organisational procrastination. Any time is as good or as bad as any other for the Congress to go in for polls.
Five: future of the deal? Will the Manmohan Singh government be able to negotiate effectively and efficaciously with the IAEA and the NSG if it is seen as having lost the support of the Left parties? Will international negotiators be willing to give New Delhi the time of the day if the government is seen to have become a minority affair? Or, will the prospect of an uncertain post-Manmohan Singh scenario prompt the pro-deal voices and interests to give New Delhi a deal it can live with rather than postpone indefinitely all that the 123 agreement is supposed to achieve?
Six: the Congress leadership will also need to take a call about the Muslim vote. Are the Muslims in India so angry with the United States and President George Bush that they would move away decisively from the Congress, even if it means opening the door once again for the BJP at the Centre? Or, will the Muslims prefer a non-starter Third Front, which would sooner than later give way to the BJP? Have the Congress and the UPA done enough to make the minorities forgo the Third Front temptations?
Are the Muslims in India so passionately committed to an anti-imperialist agenda that they would jeopardise their own security at home? And, should the Congress decide to tell the Muslims “to take it or leave it”, will it be able to poach on traditional BJP support base among the majority middle classes?
Above all, the Congress leaders — as also the rest of the political leadership — will need to make their own assessment of whether or not India has changed enough and whether the Indians feel confident enough to engage self-assuredly with the United States. Which leader has the gift for capturing the mood of a changing India? Which leader has a clue to rural India which wants to buy into the same dreams of a prosperous future for itself as do the elites ? The last categories of considerations are the most difficult of the calls to make, and may well define the shape of the Indian polity for decades to come.