Let me stick my neck out and make a rash conjecture. I believe the government could order a snap poll to be held in early 2013. My reasoning is simple. However dumb Congress leaders might be while formulating policy they are exceptionally smart when it comes to intrigue and calculation related to preserving power. And the context for a snap poll could not be more propitious for this tainted government.
By next week the parliamentary debates with voting on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail in both Houses will have occurred. By present reckoning the government will win the vote in Lok Sabha but will struggle against odds in Rajya Sabha. But opposition leaders seem to miss the point. Even if the government were to lose in the Upper House it would strengthen the government’s hands for a snap poll. By humbling the opposition through the vote in the Lower House the government would stand on high moral ground. It will have demonstrated that the opposition could not muster the numbers to challenge it on this issue. On the other hand a loss in Rajya Sabha will enable the government to demand from the people a popular mandate.
The opposition by its refusal to support Miss Mamata Banerjee’s attempt to table a no-trust motion revealed to the public its weakness to face the Congress in an election. The opposition is divided. The major opposition party is racked by infighting. Corruption as a burning issue is almost forgotten. Corruption in public perception taints the opposition as much as it does the government. These conditions favour a beleaguered Congress. These conditions may not last too long.
Is it not the optimum time for the Congress to become aggressor and order a surprise snap general election? Would that not catch the opposition flat footed? What the UPA leaders would calculate is not whether they will muster a clear majority. They will assess whether a poll at some later date will guarantee for them conditions as favourable as exist today.
The Prime Minister had earlier stated that he would prefer to go down fighting. If there is one policy to which he is genuinely committed and would like to be remembered for it is economic reforms. And it is the one issue on which he could speak with passion and conviction in an election campaign. That is why it suits the Congress to contest the election on the single issue of FDI. Rightly or wrongly the government does not consider itself to be on a weak wicket on this issue. If it is this issue that will be debated in the poll campaign attention could swing away from corruption. In any case recent events have rendered all parties equally tainted in the eyes of the public. Corruption therefore is not presently a burning issue.
Already the Prime Minister has put on fast track plans to create a Project Clearance Board and a National Investment Board. The Project Clearance Board, to be headed by the Cabinet Secretary, will be on the lines of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) which clears FDI proposals in sensitive sectors. Both these boards are being implemented on a priority basis. At the same time the government is busy at various levels to hasten payment of subsidies to the needy. These are not signs of a government preparing an exit but one that is planning another term. And it is at this precise time that the much vaunted Cash Transfer Scheme in place of subsidies has been announced with great fanfare. Finance Minister Mr. P Chidambaram has described it as a game changer. The scheme will start operating from January 1st.
Opposition leaders and political analysts opine that the scheme is intended for 2014. The UPA leaders are not denying that the scheme is intended to affect the next general election. The opposition could be wrong about the timing. The polls may hit the nation much earlier. As an election issue the Cash Transfer scheme offers dazzling hope. But there could be a dangerous gap between its dazzling promise and its actual performance. As a concept the scheme affords a wonderful promise to voters. But the government would know that in its implementation it may reveal a much more disappointing performance. Several social activists with experience of ground realities have opined that the scheme is fraught with dangers and could end up harming more people than it helps. Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and other respected authorities have opposed the scheme. In any event, even if the scheme were implemented with success its benefits would not reach the public at large within one year. On the other had the sheer concept, especially after its formal inauguration at the start of 2013, would arouse instantaneous and misplaced hope among voters.
That is why, all things considered, it makes greater sense for the government to order a quick poll and catch an opposition in disarray on the wrong foot. The Samajvadi Party, having inkling about an imminent poll perhaps, has already commenced declaring candidates for parliamentary elections. Other opposition parties would be well advised to prepare likewise, just in case.