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High on opinion polls, low on the future - The Asian Age

M. J. Akbar ()
November 15, 1998

Title: High on opinion polls, low on the future
Author: M. J. Akbar
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: November 15, 1998

After years of sobriety, the Congress High Command is feeling
high once again: there is nothing more than the faint whiff of
opinion polls in the air and jostling has started for
portfolios. Two polls have put the Congress ahead of the BJP in
the Assembly elections for Delhi and Rajasthan, and even the
fact that the same opinion poll indicates a rout for the
Congress in Madhya Pradesh has done nothing to diminish the
spirits of Congress leaders as they close their eyes in the
welcome afternoon sun of Delhi's approaching winter, dreaming
sweet dreams once again. And when Congressmen dream, they do not
fantasise about municipal portfolios. They dream of a mosaic
called India even when all they possess is a handkerchief in
need of soap.

Why are Congressmen floating once again? It cannot be merely the
thought of power alone, although there is no aphrodisiac which
works for a Congressman better than the taste of office. After
all the Congress has been in power in some form or the other
through most of the turbulent Nineties: P.V. Narasimha Rao was
Prime Minister for five years from de summer of 1991, after
which the various concoctions which ruled Delhi till Mr Atal
Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister were all dependent on
Congress support in Parliament. We may be talking of a party
isolation but we are not discussing a party in wilderness.

The reason fox the present delight is quite simple: if the
Congress wins, it will be the first time in fifteen years that
party has scored a significant political achievement. This will
be the first indication that the graph which has been declining
since that historic victory in the winter of 1984-85 may start
getting reversed. From that massive sweep, the. Congress came
down to around 200 seats in 1989. In 1991, despite the tragedy
of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination the Congress could not touch the
1989 figure: P.V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister because of
a unique and unhappy combination of circumstances. He could have
used the luck that catapulted 'him to office to rebuild the
Congress; instead he presided over the further division and
disarray of the party, and left it in a wreck by the time he was
ejected from the leadership. If you thought that the Congress
could not sink lower, then you clearly had not bargained for the
performance of Sitaram Kesri. Some politicians fail because they
are too clever by half; Mr Kesri was too clever by three
quarters. If Sonia Gandhi had not intervened, the Congress would
probably have slipped into double digits in the 1998 general
elections and the BJP achieved the comfortable majority that
seasoned and sensible leaders like Mr L.K. Advani had predicted.
The 141 seats in this, Lok Sabha gave the Congress a presence
but no credibility. And this presence in the political life of
the country owed only to the elephant factor: even the carcass
of an elephant fetches some price. The plight of the party was
best illustrates in its performance in the states: the Congress
which had once ruled the length and breadth of India had
governments only in a pocket of the Northeast, Orissa and Madhya
Pradesh. And in those three states, it lost decisively to the
BJP and its allies in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh in the Lok Sabha
elections. The Congress was in a coma, if not actually dead.
After the general elections of 1998, the BJP had more
credibility than warranted by the number of its seats; and the
Congress had less credibility than warranted by the number of
its seats' The BJP was on the high road to the future; the
Congress was stuck in a deep rut of its own making.

Whether they said as much or not, every Congressman knew this.
The party knew that it had lost that vital link with the people;
and that it had exhausted the reasons for its continued
survival. The Congress knew that it meant nothing to anyone;
and that its numbers, such as they were, came from an odd
assortment of negative reasons. unconnected by any political or
moral logic. The party evoked nothing but derision or mistrust
from its traditional voters. The Dalits had moved to another
messiah. The minorities had not forgiven the consistent
betrayals, culminating in that shameful day when Narasimha Rao
slept at 7 Race Course Road while trust was demolished across
the nation. The urban middle class, which once cheered Rajiv
Gandhi and was pleasantly surprised by Manmohan Singh. was
expressing open contempt for the Congress by 1995. The poor had
drifted away from its economic policies, unable to understand
what liberalisation could do for their stomachs.

For Congressmen, the feeling that the party can actually win an
election against an establishment as politically astute as the
BJP is still imbued with some amazement. The most popular item
on sale at the instant bazaar in the AJCC headquarters in Delhi
is not the golgappa which Mrs Shiela Dixit so happily ate in
front of the cameras, but eye ointment: everyone has been
rubbing his or her eyes in some disbelief. The realists who
insist that there can be a very big slip between the cup and the
lip, and that the campaigning powers of Vajpayee, Advani and,
more important, the committed BJP cadre should not be
underestimated, are in a decreasing minority.

What is certain is that an alternative scenario is already in
place, and will be put into effect if the results are favourable
to the Congress. The elections are on November 25; the results
will be known on November 28; Parliament is scheduled to convene
on Monday, November 30. If the Congress wins Delhi and Rajasthan
- and you can put that if in capital letters if you like - then
the Vajpayee government will not survive the next session of the
Lok Sabha.

An unstated understanding has already been reached among the
three ladies who will, perhaps more than anyone else, control
the fate of the current House: Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalitha and
Mamata Banerjee. Sonia Gandhi will charge the Vajpayee
government with communalism and incompetence. Jayalalitha will
add that she is disillusioned with a government she once
trusted. And Mamata Banerjee will remind the BJP that she never
joined the government because she is a secular politician. That
is why December 6, the day the Babri mosque was brought down in
the presence of the top BJP leadership, is a black day in her
calendar this year. At best December 6 can be a grey day for any
ally of the BJP, as presumably it is for old socialists like
George Fernandes. But it cannot be a black day for them, as one
senior BJP leader ruefully told this columnist.

The Left has already accepted the reality that there cannot be a
non-BJP formation without the Congress, and so it will have to
live with the contradictions of support to the Congress in Delhi
and opposition in the state as best as it can. That is the price
to be paid for removing the BJP government at the Centre. The
BJP has shrugged off this emerging relationship by calling the
Congress and the CPI(M) natural allies; but of course one
party's accusation is another party's compliment. Fringe forces
like the National Conference with their two or three MPs will be
only too happy to become "secular" again, although the most
sensible way to treat the National Conference would be to let it
remain with the BJP.

It is, however, easier to bring down a government than to
construct one. Sonia Gandhi can topple Atal Behari Vajpayee, but
how can she prevent herself from becoming a laughing stock
within three months as Prime Minister of a Cabinet sprinkled
with crooks from Patna, musclemen from Uttar Pradesh and one-
point-programme children from Tamil Nadu? The Vajpayee coalition
will begin to look like cement compared to the jelly of a Sonia
pudding. And while the BJP may not quite know how to govern, it
certainly knows how to oppose.

There is an answer, but not a very pleasant one. The fact is
that a non-BJP government composed of such disparate elements as
exist are united only about the BJP and nothing else. They can
barely disguise their differences in opposition; a few weeks in
government will tear them apart. A BJP defeat in a fortnight's
time will not set the stage for a new coalition; it will merely
create the conditions for yet another general election. This is
a fractured Lok Sabha, and bandages can only bring temporary
relief. Any non-BJP arrangement can at best form a caretaker
government. It should be a bridge ministry, tasked to bring the
economic crisis under control and then pave the way for a
general election. If the non-BJP parties can work out a
partnership that can survive and win in an election, only then
will they be able to offer a government which has the mandate to

The Congress in particular must remember that it was the BJP
which achieved the moral victory in the last elections; and it
is the BJP which has the mandate to rule in this House. The
Kesri Congress was not given the authority that is necessary for
a legitimate exercise of power. If Sonia Gandhi wants to be a
Prime Minister who can last for five years then she, either
alone or with natural or unnatural allies, must win a general
election which gives her that right to rule.

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