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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

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George Bush and the Indian election

September 15, 2008

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An old adage says that a picture is worth a thousand words. Come the general election and we may find that a certain picture is worth two thousand words.

The image in question shows a smiling Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] and George W Bush [Images] standing side-by-side. Where it was taken is irrelevant, all that matters is the subject -- showing an almost unprecedented closeness between an American president and an Indian prime minister.

So why shall this picture be worth two thousand words? Simple, because the Congress and the CPI-M are sure to interpret it in two completely different ways.

The two major states where Congressmen and Marxists are locked in battle are West Bengal and Kerala [Images]. (Technically, that is also true of Tripura, but I have to struggle to remember the last time that the Congress put up a real fight in the state.) Muslims constitute roughly a quarter of the electorate in both states -- which collectively elect 62 MPs to the Lok Sabha -- and they could be crucial in deciding the fate of the Congress and the CPI-M alike.

The Left Front simply cannot repeat its superlative performance of the 2004 general election, when it won 35 of the 42 seats in West Bengal and didn't allow the Congress a single seat in Kerala. (The sole Lok Sabha seat won by the United Progressive Alliance in Kerala fell to an ally of the Congress, the Muslim League -- a point to which I shall return.)

In 2004, the Left Front enjoyed the advantages of a fresh face, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in Kolkata and of a stale performance by the A K Antony ministry in Thiruvananthapuram.

In 2008 the shoe is squarely on the other foot. The V S Achuthanandan ministry is a laughing stock, and the sheen has come off Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee following everything that happened -- is still happening -- in Nandigram [Images] and in Singur.

The Congress is sure to be the beneficiary in Kerala, while the Congress and Trinamool Congress may share the honours in West Bengal. It is therefore critical for the CPI-M to hang on to the Muslim vote. (Many of those involved in the anti-Marxist protests in Nandigram at any rate were Muslims.)

It is no secret that President Bush is probably the most unpopular man on earth as far as the global Muslim community is concerned. The American leader has been compared by some to Hulagu, the Mongol commander who destroyed the Baghdad Caliphate, commonly reckoned as one of the greatest disasters in Islamic history. (2008 marked the 750th anniversary of the battle.)

Establishing the American president as the Congress prime minister's best friend would go a long way to swinging Muslim votes towards the Left Front -- or so the Marxists believe.

This explains why the CPI-M has already designed posters showing that photograph of President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh grinning away like they were bosom buddies. In effect, the Marxists want the average Muslim voter to believe that a vote for the Congress is a vote for George Bush's [Images] United States.

The logic of the Marxist position is actually accepted by other parties too. If the rumour mills are to be believed, the Left Front's new-found ally Mayawati [Images] is prepared to add the poster to her armoury. (Just under 20 per cent of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh [Images], the Bahujan Samaj Party's base, consists of Muslims.) One might logically expect allies to think on the same lines, but what does it say when even a Congress ally accepts that proximity to President Bush is a vote-loser?

I spoke of a sole Muslim League MP from Kerala, remember? That is E Ahamed, the sitting Lok Sabha MP for Ponnani. When President Bush visited India in March 2006, E Ahamed held the post of minister of state in the ministry of external affairs. There was no other minister of state in the ministry at the time, so you would naturally have expected him to play a fairly prominent role in proceedings. But how many people have seen a single photograph of the minister of state side-by-side with the visitor?

It was very neatly done, but I understand that the minister of state took immense care to ensure that he was never captured in the same frame as the American leader. Knowing how politicians love to grab the limelight given a quarter of a chance that is really saying something!

E Ahamed won Ponnani by a margin of over a lakh in 2004, defeating the CPI's P P Suneer by 354,051 votes to 251,293. But why take a chance?

The Congress cannot deny the Bush connection. The prime minister himself is on record that no American president has been as great a friend of India. And the party needs to tom-tom the nuclear deal with President Bush because, frankly, there is precious little else to talk about. (There is no point in talking about growth rates at a time when inflation is in the double digits; you can scarcely talk about security when terrorists dare to place a bomb at India Gate in the very heart of Delhi.)

The timing of the general election shall be crucial. What happens if, say, Israel chooses to attack Iran in that two-and-a-half month interregnum between the US presidential election and the arrival of the new administration? That will inflame Muslim passions all over again given Israel's close relationship with the United States.

Foreign policy issues have never played much of a role in Indian elections. (The general elections of 1962 and 1971 were held before war broke out later in both years.) But George Bush -- a polarising figure in his own country -- may just turn conventional wisdom on its head in India this time. Watch out for that poster!

T V R Shenoy

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