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Analysis: Parties jostle for election allies and issues

By Sheela Bhatt
March 02, 2009 21:54 IST
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The calendar of the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha has been announced. Almost all the political parties are nervous about going to the polls. Equally, the people of India are uncertain about what the elections will ultimately throw up.

The Congress party is displaying a studied confidence that people will appreciate its rule of the past five years. It is projecting a more coherent image than its nearest rival -- the  Bhartiya Janata Party -- but this could very well be a contrived posturing by way of creating an air of confidence limited to New Delhi.

After all, just last Sunday, in the by-elections in Bhadohi Assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress candidate got just 2,275 votes, he came fifth and lost his deposit. Samajwadi Party candidate Madhubala Pasi won with 60,351 votes defeating the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose candidate got 54,986 votes.

The fact is, if one looks from New Delhi, it seems that the Congress has an overall edge compared to other contestants. But if you view the Congress's prospects from the state capitals, they seem hardly encouraging. If Congress loses dramatically in Andhra Pradesh (it has 29 seats in the outgoing house) and Tamil Nadu (10 seats), it will almost certainly lose the game.

The reverse is true for the BJP. From New Delhi, the BJP looks divided, confused and devoid of fresh ideas. But in a few crucial states it seems that the party is set to take advantage of the anti-incumbency of the United Progressive Alliance government. In the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the issues of terrorism and economy are hot and will harm the Congress.

Most Congress leaders claim that the UPA will get 180 seats if elections are held today. The first logic they offer is that L K Advani's leadership has not been received with enthusiasm. They point out, "There is a disconnect between Advani and BJP on the core issues."

They also argue that in five years of UPA rule, "there is no Bofors of Sonia Gandhi, " as a Congressman puts it, who stretches his argument by saying that Sonia Gandhi has performed better than Rajiv Gandhi, who lost out in managing his public image in spite of having the majority of  411 seats out of 543.

The Congress allies within the UPA are weaker than the allies of BJP within the National Democratic Alliance. But, nobody has any doubt that the Congress is cunning enough to get the best bargain out of its allies, which will help it before and after the elections.

All parties are searching for an election issue. The UPA is praying that no fresh incident of terrorism occurs. The BJP is craving for some sentimental issue to evoke nationalism to unite its core voters. The BJP is scared after losing the Delhi elections.

The Left parties are struggling to put their home in order but Communist Party of India - Marxist general secretary Prakash Karat or his cadre will not give up before fighting the battle aggressively.

Although Dr Manmohan Singh's foreign policy has been jolted in its roots after Barack Obama's election as US President, the election is likely to be fought on domestic issues. The candidate's combative politics, money power and local issues will be dominant factors in the elections in large areas of India. If viewed from New Delhi, mainstream English media is largely kinder to the Congress than the BJP.   

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Home Ministry has warned top political leaders about the security risk. The elections are fraught with various kinds of risk. One is not sure, this time, whether the exercise in democracy will make India stronger or weaker in times of an economic meltdown.

Today, when the elections were announced, the most sought after leaders seemed to be Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Mayawati is looking for a huge leap forward by winning more than 50 seats. If she manages to balance, harmonise and unify Brahmin votes with Dalit votes in UP once again, then the coming decade is unquestionably hers.

On the other hand, Narendra Modi is taking this election as a practice match. He is not in a hurry. But this time he wants to give some sort of a reply to people who argue that Modi will never be acceptable to non-Gujaratis. He has been made in-charge of Maharashtra and Goa as well. He will be used by the BJP to tackle the Gandhi family and the issue of dynasty politics. Modi versus Gandhi dynasty can be tasty feed for the 'headless chickens' of the media.

Already, Modi has started playing his kind of politics. He was compelled to take notice of Rahul Gandhi when the latter visited Gujarat three times, but Modi's defence is combative.  

Congress's biggest dilemma or mystery card is Rahul Gandhi. The elections have been announced but the Congress will not be led from the front by Rahul Gandhi. Instead, Manmohan Singh is being projected as the prime ministerial candidate but he is sick, invisible and inactive.

This has irritated UPA allies like Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar and others. Pawar says Congress should agree for an alliance at the national level also. This is because Pawar and Lalu Yadav want their say in deciding who should be prime minister of the UPA if it gets a majority or manages one through post-election alliances. Pawar is quite serious about his stake because he considers this election as his last chance to get the most-sought after post. A confidante of Pawar says that Congress has refused any alliance at the national level before election because if the UPA forms the government again and Manmohan Singh becomes PM again, he will be holding the post only for a short time. According to him, once the government is stabilised and secured, Rahul Gandhi will step in.

However, all political leaders and parties agree that this time, India will once again have a coalition government. And, as expected, there are any number of political leaders who want to be prime minister, starting from Pawar to Nitish Kumar.

One New Delhi based observer explains that in case the third front is invited to form the government, the least opposed and the least talented leader will become prime minister, which rules out Mayawati. She will be one of the most opposed candidates for the post of PM.

Many experts say that this is going to be the most costly elections in the last 60 years, with the total expense in the range of Rs 10,000 crore. The tragedy of Indian democracy in 2009 is that a candidate who cannot put up more than Rs 1 crore is not even taken seriously.

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Sheela Bhatt