Friday, 5 December, 2008

Road to New Delhi: 2009 general elections

With the 15th Lok Sabha elections slated to be held before May of next year, all political activity in the country has geared towards addressing people's issues and mobilizing party machineries. The ball was set rolling during the no-confidence motion against the present dispensation, when fears of the UPA government falling, seemed a taut possibility. A re-alignment of sorts happened with parties scrambling to form new alliances to stabilize and destabilize the present government, while also having an eye on the impending general election.

The Congress-SP-JMM, BJP-INLD, the short lived BSP-Left tie-ups were an immediate result of this search for new partners. In the months following the confidence vote, political parties all over India began hectic parleys to find common ground in an effort to create pre-poll alliances. The emphasis on pre-poll rather than post-poll alliances signifies the acceptance of ground realities by the two major national parties, Congress and BJP that their base has further shrunk. The third front that the Left is attempting to stitch together will be a major player in the next Lok Sabha too with parties like BSP, TDP, Praja Rajyam, AIADMK, DMDK, JD(S), TRS and RLD searching for space in the national arena, as they are currently not allied with either the UPA or the NDA.

The issues that ordinary citizens are most concerned with have not changed significantly from 2004. To be certain, the UPA will not make the BJP's mistake of presenting a "Shining India" to 80 per cent of the country who had no part in the rapid economic growth India saw. Moreover the economic slowdown, has deflated any claims, the Congress would have loved to make, of the massive economic reforms that it undertook which took the Sensex to record levels, despite the opposition from Left parties.

The UPA can boast of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Right To Information (RTI) and Indo-US nuclear deal while the Left will pat itself on the back for backing NREGS and RTI while obstructing attempts to subvert the RTI Act, diverting Pensions and Provident Funds and increasing FDI's in insurance; the last two of which would have put India in trouble from the global economic crisis. The BJP predictably has latched on to the terrorism threat and weaknesses of the UPA in fighting terror but its nationalist agenda received a severe setback following the involvement of Hindu "extremists" in the Malegaon blasts and brought undone its claims that terrorism was a Muslim domain.

However, it is a reality that the spate of bombings across the country have become a concern for citizens, but who they choose to throw their lot with on this count remains in doubt as successive governments of the BJP and Congress have fared equally poorly on the security front, but the Congress is on the backfoot as it has repeatedly fumbled on evolving a strategy to combat terrorism and addressing the flaws in the security and intelligence apparatus. The recent violence against Christians, the UPA's hesitation to ban the Bajrang Dal and the pressure to bring POTA back has foisted insecurity on minorities. The Congress has been sceptical of playing the secular card in recent times, and has lost significant minority support to third front.

The economic slowdown might be a boon to the ruling UPA, as it has brought demand and hence inflation down. The Congress has a masterstroke up its armoury which it is waiting to unveil: lowering of petrol and LPG price. This will satisfy the middle class and the agriculture sector as prices of essential items will come down in the short run. The recession's impact on the service and industry sectors is troublesome for the UPA as the work-force in these sectors enjoy enormous sympathy in the media but is not a major factor in votebank politics. However Manmohan Singh seems to have got it wrong, when he talks of a financial stimuli or bailout for industrialists while forgetting that a similar crisis exists in the agricultural sector too where incomes have continued to deflate or remain stagnant as a result of our pursuit of neo-liberal policies.

The recently held assembly polls to the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Jammu-Kashmir, Delhi and Mizoram will act as the true curtain raiser to the Lok Sabha elections. Though local issues and performance of the state governments will decide the contest, no political party can afford to see the results in isolation as these elections come with a strong psychological factor which will boost the morale of the parties that win, ahead of the general election. The assembly polls are significant for another reason that in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chattisgarh the Congress and BJP are directly pitted against each other while both parties hold significant stakes in Jammu & Kashmir.

Also interesting to observe, will be the performance of Mayawati's BSP which is a fringe group in Madhya Pradesh, Rajastan, Delhi and Chattisgarh. A credible performance by BSP will boost her standing as a probable prime-ministerial candidate for the third front and make her a strong national player. The Left Parties will see their numbers fall from the high of 61 MP's they now possess, as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Congress-led UDF in Kerala have regained significant strength to put up a stronger fight this time.

Though anti-incumbency, policies and performance are the major forces in deciding most elections, caste politics will also play a major role in deciding the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka elections. The middle class will split between the Congress and the BJP while rural India where a majority of the people live, will be swindled again by parties which promise a lot for agriculture but end up pursuing neo-liberal policies and undoing the welfare state that India strived to become for the first 44 years of independence.

The 15th Lok Sabha elections are important because it could change the course of recent developments like the junking of non-alignment for the Indo-US alliance, terrorism, rising insecurity of minorities, the undeniable influence of Maoists, agricultural stagnation and the demand for a regulated economy versus more globalization. The Americans dubbed Obama's presidential elections as a vote for change; our politicians too will come knocking at our doorsteps with better slogans. Several actions of the UPA government in the last two years were indicative of a government for the corporations, not for the common man. The sad reality of different Indias for different Indians can still be fought. But it is no secret that the warped policies of the past will continue, whichever existing political party comes to power.

P.S - Op-Ed written for college newspaper.