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Will the political princes be conscious of their mandate?

September 06, 2004

What will become of the BJP, now that the party is out of power, and apparently split over how to get back the controls of government? While this question has remained at the forefront of post-election conversations in political circles, the more intriguing question is a different one -- what's to become of the Congress?

The direction of the ruling party leaves a footprint on our lives that is usually far more significant than impacts from the opposition. Our destinies for the next few years have more to do with the evolution of the Congress and its Left allies than the internecine squabbling in the Sangh Parivar.

The UPA government came to power after a rousing reminder from the voters that much of the nation has been left behind while the 'India Shining' brigade has held a steady party for a dozen years now. Regardless of party, in state after state, voters were sending the message that the economic policies that have now become standard fare across the political spectrum are unacceptable to them. This uniformity was explained away as 'anti-incumbency' as though people are so stupid that they would vote someone out merely for occupying a particular office. What they're really against is what the incumbents do.

It is important, therefore, to scrutinise the first proposals from the incoming administration in New Delhi, and ask how they relate to the voters' message. Will the new political princes remain conscious of their mandate, and chart a new course, very different from the one set by their predecessors?

Alertness to these questions is important, because the electoral mathematics isn't correctly represented in government. Relative to its vote-share and its performance in the election, the Congress has captured grossly disproportionate amounts of power. Its electoral performance was only slightly better than the last time around (31 more seats won, but at a 2 percent loss in vote-share from 1999 nationwide).

The details can clarify some of this; it is nonetheless certain that the party's ascension to the durbar in Delhi had more to do with regional allies whose independent standing in their respective domains is vastly greater than that of the Congress. The Dravidian parties in the Tamil coalition, for example, are the real leaders in Tamil Nadu, and the Congress was merely piggy-backing on their strengths. But by virtue of outnumbering them nationally, the Congress has become the senior partner at the Centre.

The Left parties' reluctance to join the ruling coalition as governing members has further heightened this skew in the balance of power. Those 60+ seats -- a fifth of the coalition's basis for power -- and the ministerial roles they normally would have commanded as part of the government have now been redistributed among other allies, with the Congress playing the deciding role of the distributor. Congress MPs have been quick to seize the authority that comes from such a gift, so much so that Shivraj Patil, whose name did not figure among the prominents before the election, could be given the plum post of the home ministry without causing too much of a stir within the party. When there's power enough for everyone, why lament a few odd choices?

But victory and its aftermath are at best interesting spectacles. The test of stability for this unbalanced political power lies in the actual policies that are followed by the administration. Early in the political game, the ruling party is likely to find some slack from the media, its partners out of government, and to a lesser degree the opposition as well. Moreover, many needs of citizens have hitherto been met at such a rudimentary level that even small appearances of concern for the indigent will yield some political benefit for the Congress. Eventually, however, patience with mere shows of concern will fade, and the substance of Congress policies will come under greater scrutiny. When this happens, the political space separating the party and its Left partners will seem wider than it does today.

This is almost certain, given how uniformly the various parties have come under the same influences over the last decade. Money in politics has a way of making all governments lean away from socialism; only a few days after the Congress emerged victorious, the same businessmen who had cultivated BJP leaders with such vigour were embracing the new political masters. Their influence isn't about to be altered significantly. With one other irony -- the largest mandate ever against mindless pro-business policies has seen the installation of the man most identified with initiating those policies as the prime minister -- the table for intra-coalition friction is well laid.

It's possible that the Left parties declined to join the government precisely for this reason; they have given itself license to criticise the pro-business policies that the government puts forward. How the Congress responds to that development will determine the longevity of the government.

On the BJP side of the political fence, things have been quieter since the election. Throughout the last Lok Sabha, the party's fortunes eroded in one state after another, until at one point more than half the states in the Union were ruled by Congress or its partner governments. The NDA should have been alert to this, not only to read the direction of political winds, but to understand a far more damaging problem. Power generates visibility, and as the boundaries of the BJP's strength shrank to New Delhi and a few states, it became vitally important for the party to be re-elected to central power. With the death of that ambition, the degree of the party's fall from the public eye has been stunning. Now, opposition members can go for days together without serious mention in the press, except when they are engaged in various shows of pique over trivial 'he-said-she-said' dramas.

The BJP's introspection of the past few weeks hasn't produced anything significant, but as with the Congress its lines of separation will emerge once new policies are announced and implemented. Despite obvious differences stemming from religious nationalism, the BJP is similar to the Left parties in one striking aspect -- a good measure of its support is drawn from economic nationalists who are proudly insistent upon things Indian. For the Left parties, identifying with the masses is mostly an economic consideration, whereas for the BJP this is a cultural being. Notwithstanding these different points of origin, however, the Be Indian, Buy Indian mantra is one that resonates in both groups. BJP loyalists will identify better with the former, while economic progressives latch on more readily to the latter.

Between all these positions, what we can expect? Like all governments, the Congress will yield to pressure from the business lobbies. This will draw predictable ire from its Left partners, who will for a while attempt to roll back these developments from within the coalition. The threat of 'withdrawal of support', however, will remain very real. Despite this, Congress will press on with policies that open more of India to global competition, with very little to show in return from negotiations in trade organisations. The continuing assault on the agriculture sector is now the most evident indication of this path; the commerce minister was almost alone in declaring the recent WTO negotiations on agriculture a success, blithely blind to their obvious failure to protect Indian interests.

But will all these add up to a no-confidence motion? It's hard to tell. The 'all-bark-and-no-bite' taunting from the newly deposed is too little and too early for the Communist parties to parade their parliamentary firepower now, but depending on how the cards fall within the NDA, that could change. Perhaps religious nationalism will remain the core of the BJP, but the nuanced question is whether in making that choice, the party will push economic nationalists too far away. If that happens, the ghosts of the Third Front will be back.

That's the lay of this Lok Sabha. Religious nationalism has proven unable to scale the majority mark at the Centre, and is now in full retreat. At the same time, secularism alone wont put food on the table; the Congress has busied itself as much as the BJP with the celebration of India Shining that has proven premature and shallow. What's left -- pardon the pun -- is for parties to find and promote an agenda that at least half the people can sign on to. The Congress believes itself capable of running such an agenda, but in the last two decades has clearly abandoned the task of finding it first. The BJP fell into the opposite trap, rushing headlong down a path that didn't lead to a majority of its own. With both major combinations flailing, what remains to be coalesced is the actual socio-economic condition of the majority of the people.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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