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Elections soon after Diwali!

April 01, 2013 19:29 IST

The state of the economy which is in a far worse condition than the government wants us to know; the UPA's instability and the Robert Vadra factor may force a Lok Sabha election this winter, predicts T V R Shenoy

"Chunaav kab honge? (When will the Lok Sabha election be held?)"

"Ram jaane!"

Meaning the Lord alone knows when the next general election is due.

True, but in this city, whether ancient Indraprastha or New Delhi, you should never quite accept a statement at face value. So, what could that seemingly pious 'Ram jaane!' indicate?

The principal festivals associated with Lord Rama are Ramanavami and Deepavali. The real question is whether the election campaign will be in full swing come Deepavali -- which falls on November 3, 2013 -- or whether one must wait until Ramavami, April 8, 2014.

My own information is that we should start preparing for elections around, or shortly after, Deepavali. And therein lies a tale.

The Congress 'Core Group' met soon after the DMK walked out of the United Progressive Alliance. It was from that point on that the Congress stopped thinking tactically and began planning strategically.

Until then the Congress was obsessed with the survival of the Manmohan Singh ministry up to its mandated end in the summer of 2014. At this 'Core Group' conference, however, the party began thinking of the long term.

The shift in direction reportedly came thanks to some sober words from a member of the 'Core Group'. He or she offered two reasons why it might make sense to arrange for a general election no later than November or December.

The first is that the economy is in poor shape, far worse than anyone -- inside or outside of government -- wants to let on in public.

Part of this is beyond the control of the Manmohan Singh ministry. For ten days markets across the world were shaken by the events in Cyprus, which accounts for just about one-hundredth of one percent of the Eurozone economy. There is a fear that the Cyprus crisis was Europe's Bear Sterns moments if not, yet, its Lehman Brothers.

The other part, however, is definitely due to the Manmohan Singh ministry's mismanagement.

Congress spokespersons always tout the growth in the GDP figures, tom-tomming the fact that the lowest rate of growth was better than the highest rate in the Vajpayee years. What they will never admit is that the GDP is a single statistic.

Let us take jobs. According to the official figures released under the aegis of the National Development Council, chaired by the prime minister himself, Indian agriculture lost 1.408 crore (14.08 million) jobs in the agriculture sector between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010.

The manufacturing sector lost 0.503 crore (5.03 million) jobs. The electricity, gas, and water sector also saw job losses in the same period, indicating trouble ahead.

These job losses have come at the same time as persistent high inflation, a falling rupee, and a record current account deficit. There are many unhappy voters out there; there will be even more, and even more unhappy, voters come 2014.

The second reason for bringing forward the general election, mentioned at the Congress 'Core Group', was the party's dependence on smaller parties.

The Manmohan Singh ministry began its second stint as a limousine running on four wheels, the four Ms -- namely Mamata (Banerjee), Muthuvel (Karunanidhi), Mayawati, and Mulayam (Singh Yadav). The Trinamool Congress (19 Lok Sabha MPs) and the DMK (18 Lok Sabha MPs) were the inner wheels of the UPA, and in their absence Dr Manmohan Singh is running a minority government.

The ministry runs with support from outside by the Samajwadi Party (22 Lok Sabha MPs) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (21 Lok Sabha MPs). In fact, the exit of the Trinamool Congress and the DMK means that the second-ranking party still inside the UPA alliance is Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (nine Lok Sabha MPs) -- and the Congress trusts him even less than it trusts Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The Congress supported Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral before pulling down all four. But now the shoe is on the other foot, and the smaller parties can topple a Congress prime minister. Or they can humiliate the Congress until the larger party's credibility is smashed.

There is a third reason why the Congress might prefer an immediate dissolution of the Lok Sabha, one that was probably not discussed at that 'Core Group' meeting. Which is that the party might find it safer to have a general election before the results of the Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha polls come out.

The reason is Robert Vadra's land speculations. Congressmen fell over themselves to testify to Vadra's innocence when the news broke, and one of the explanations on offer was that he is a savvy businessman.

Robert Vadra is scarcely a titan on the scale of a Jamsetji Tata, a G D Birla, or a Dhirubhai Ambani, but he may have had enough street smarts to know that safety lies in numbers. Is it possible that others in the Congress are enmeshed?

Nobody in the Congress would have had the guts to mention this openly before Sonia Gandhi, but speculation is rife. The life of the Haryana Vidhan Sabha extends up to 2014, but the tenure of the Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha ends in December 2013. Conventional wisdom has it that the Congress will lose power in Jaipur, and the next government, assuming it is dominated by the BJP, will release all the documents.

Taken together, these are excellent reasons for the Congress to prefer a general election in 2013. But it cannot afford to say so until the Budget Session ends.

The first half of the session ended on March 22, and Parliament then adjourned until April 22, (two days after the Ramanavami of 2013). The Congress needs to grit its teeth, to smile gracefully when Mulayam Singh Yadav calls it 'dhokebaaz (cheats),' and to smack down all talk of a dissolution until the Budget has been passed.

Parliament will rise on May 10, 2013, after which the Congress gets a little breathing space until the scheduled start of the Monsoon Session, on July 26, 2013.

The Election Commission will take a little time to prepare for a general election. In 1999, the Vajpayee government lost a confidence motion, by a single controversial vote, on April 17; the general election was conducted between September 5 and October 3.

Assuming this holds true today as well the Congress can ask for a dissolution at any point between May 10 and July 26, enabling polls in the October-December period.

Details of the Congress 'Core Group' session have almost certainly been leaked to others too, which explains Mulayam Singh Yadav's refrain of 'elections in November'.

With that information in hand, the Samajwadi Party boss is refraining from pulling down the Manmohan Singh ministry; why should he attract opprobrium when the Congress is thinking of bringing down its own house?

Of the three factors troubling the Congress -- the economy, the difficulty of running a minority government, Robert Vadra's business deals -- 2014 may see clarity only on the third. But if the global economy does a repeat of 2008-2009 or if there is another fractured mandate I do not know how India shall fare.

Whether the general election is due around Deepavali of 2013 or Ramanavami of 2014 we should expect stormy times ahead. To quote the Mahatma's last words, 'Hey Ram.'

T V R Shenoy