Millennium Post

India's changing political equation

The entry of this rank ‘outsider’ into government poses a challenge not just to the Congress, but also to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is aggressively bidding for power. Indeed, the challenge extends to all political parties, especially in the urban areas.

AAP’s rise has fired the popular imagination and kindled the hope that a ‘new’ kind of ‘people’s politics’, based on grassroots mobilisation, is viable even without tried-and-tested leaders. This hope is likely to trigger experimental launches of new parties and movements which could affect election outcomes in many of India’s 94 urban and 122 semi-urban Lok Sabha constituencies – regardless of whether or not AAP exists there. AAP has taken a risk by forming the government, and that too by accepting the Congress’s support. The Congress can withdraw support at will, as it did in the past, witness its toppling of the Charan Singh government in 1980, and forcing HD Deve Gowda’s replacement by IK Gujral in 1997 as the United Front’s Prime Minister, just to show its muscle.

The Congress may be pleased at its success in keeping the BJP out of power. But its pleasure could prove short-lived. As this Column argued last week, AAP will inadvertently harm the Congress the most – unless it stops equating it with the BJP and adopts a strong, clear line against Narendra Modi’s super-toxic Hindutva.

The Congress stands to lose more heavily than the BJP to AAP and such kindred parties as may be thrown up because the United Progressive Alliance government it leads is widely blamed for inflation, massive corruption and economic mismanagement. AAP mobilised people’s anger on the first two issues in Delhi. The Congress’s anti-incumbency burden is rising by the day. But it shows no recognition of its gravity – as the Maharashtra government’s shameful rejection of the Adarsh scam inquiry report demonstrates.

The BJP too is likely to feel the heat from AAP – not just in eight of India’s 35 states and union territories which typically witness bipolar contests between it and the Congress, but also elsewhere. If AAP wins 20 to 40 Lok Sabha seats, which is conceivable unless it botches up on governance in Delhi, it will become a significant bloc comparable in influence to, or even bigger than, regional parties like the AIADMK, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress or the Biju Janata Dal. Such blocs seem set to be the kingmakers of 2014. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is today in tatters, with just two allies (the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal) in place of the 20-odd parties whose adherence it once commanded. Building a broad coalition will be crucially important for the BJP given that some 250 constituencies, mainly in the South and the East, are no-go areas for it.

Of the remaining 290-odd constituencies, the BJP on its own is unlikely to win the 180-220 seats needed for the NDA to come to power. That would demand a much higher strike-rate than the BJP has ever achieved.

The BJP too is mired in the same system of malgovernance rooted in crony capitalism, corruption, self-seeking, abuse of privilege, and the ‘Lal Batti’ (red beacon) culture that AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal rails against and accuses the Congress of perpetuating. It’s almost as vulnerable as the Congress to AAP’s attacks despite the latter’s lack of ideological clarity on Hindutva and other issues. If AAP concentrates its fire on systemic misgovernance – as would be logical if it wants to mobilise people and take up issues like water and power availability and pricing, and slum regularisation and improvement, which matter to the urban poor – it would have to target the BJP whether it likes it or not, and regardless of the pro-Modi bent of some of its supporters.

The Congress too is in much poorer shape than in 2009. Barring Karnataka, it cannot hope to sweep any major state. In Andhra Pradesh, where it won a handsome 33 of 42 seats in 2009, it seems set to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because of its colossal mishandling of the Telangana question. It commissioned the Srikrishna committee report on Telangana, but didn’t hold wide consultations on it for three years, or otherwise prepare the ground. It has watched helplessly as its own Chief Minister went about subverting the creation of the new state, an agitation against which was fomented by both the rival YSR Congress under Jaganmohan Reddy and business interests in Coastal Andhra who have invested heavily in Hyderabad and nearby areas.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress won 21 of 80 seats in 2009 (compared to 9 in 2004) thanks to a combination of two factors: upper-caste disillusionment with both the BJP and the BSP, and the alienation of a large number of Muslims from the Samajwadi Party, which they felt, had used them. This time around, things are markedly different. The upper castes have gravitated towards the BJP, as have the Jats in Western UP owing to the polarisation brought about by the Muzaffarnagar riots and the strength of the nasty ‘love jehad’ disinformation campaign there.

Muslims feel let down by the SP government’s appalling handling of the Muzaffarnagar violence and its aftermath. It didn’t control the violence in time. It has left thousands of Muslims stranded in inhuman conditions in relief camps. It has washed its hands of rehabilitation and is instead offering them Rs 5 lakhs in housing assistance if they don’t return to their villages.

Yet, the Congress is no position to win Muslim electoral support because it has no cadres and no organisation worth the name in UP. Vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s poorly conceived efforts to revive the party through the instrument of the Youth Congress and his handpicked sycophants have failed. In despair, the Muslims are exploring other options including the BSP.

In Bihar (40 seats), the Congress can improve on its 2004 score of two seats only if it crafts an alliance with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, which seems to be in revival mode, and Ram Bilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, and campaigns well. The Congress’ options and bargaining power have shrunk after its poor showing in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi.

Other big states like Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also remain iffy for the Congress. Whether it retains its score of 17 of Maharashtra’s 48 seats will hinge on what Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party does. It’s not clear if Mr Pawar will go with the Congress or choose another partner, as he did more than once in the past. In West Bengal (42 seats), Mamata Banerjee’s TMC will probably gain at the expense of the Left and the Congress. And in Tamil Nadu (39 seats), the Congress, now without strong allies, is unlikely to retain its 2009 tally of eight seats.

So the Congress’s overall 2014 prospect appears dismal. Yet, instead of forging itself into a fighting machine, and correcting policy course by adopting pro-people redistributive measures, the Congress is trying to please the very same interests whose appeasement through neo-liberal policies earned it unpopularity. In bending over backwards to favour Big Business, Rahul Gandhi declared his commitment to the religion of GDP-ism at a 21 December FICCI meeting, and promised not ‘to allow you [business] to be held back by slow decision-making’.

To demonstrate this, the government replaced environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan with M Veerappa Moily. Moily holds the petroleum portfolio and promotes fossil fuels – which is in conflict with his additional charge. He’s also slavishly pro-business.

But Natarajan was no green radical. She first diluted the Madhav Gadgil recommendations on the ecologically fragile Western Ghats through the Kasturirangan committee report, and then delayed even the latter’s enforcement while permitting plantations and agriculture. That’s why she was sent to replace Jairam Ramesh, who took a correct stand against mining in thick forests, although he cleared over 95 percent of the proposals submitted to him. Natarajan was turfed out to send a signal to businessmen that they should expect an even more lax environmental regime than the existing one, which has been criticised for ‘arbitrary’ and ‘cursory’ clearances by the National Green Tribunal. This will ensure rapid loss of irreplaceable ecological resources.

Rahul Gandhi also offered to ‘reform’ labour laws (read, remove already-paltry labour protections and promote hire-and-fire policies) while saying the old laws ‘forced businesses to use contract labour’. In reality, employers use contract labour illegally – even for perennial and regular work for which they should hire permanent workers – because it’s underpaid. The Congress is taking these retrograde steps under the pressure of Big Business and the corporate media. But these don’t deliver votes or legitimacy. The people alone do. But the Congress is turning its back on the people.

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