Ahead of Polls, UPA and NDA Firm Up their Support

What is noteworthy about the Indian political landscape before the general election is that the composition of the two major coalitions - the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - appear to have stabilized.

Their constituents currently number around 10, which is a big drop from the 24-member NDA of 1998. If the number was so high at the time, the reason was that Atal Bihari Vajpayee's assumption of office marked the BJP's first step into the corridors of power at the centre - if one ignores Vajpayee's 13-day government of 1996.

As a party finally bringing the curtains down on the Congress' rule, the BJP had evidently aroused high expectations. Hence, the flocking of so many regional parties to its side. However, if the tally has fallen quite drastically since then, it is apparently because some of the earlier hopes have been negated.

It is difficult to say whether this slow bleeding of the NDA has any electoral significance. But, considering that some of its members have crossed over to the UPA, which came into being in 2004, it is obvious that the Congress-led formation's acceptability is higher than what it was at the turn of the century.

The tipping point for the NDA was the Gujarat riots of 2002, which persuaded Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) to cross the floor and Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress to start distancing itself from the BJP. The National Conference stayed on but, as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who belongs to it, later told parliament, that decision was a mistake.

The National Conference, which is now in the UPA, has been joined by the Trinamool Congress in the group. The AIADMK, formerly of the NDA, has also expressed a preference for an understanding with the Congress.

Arguably, the 24-member NDA was too unwieldy to last although no one can say what would have happened if Gujarat had not gone up in communal flames under Narendra Modi's government. It is for this reason perhaps that Vajpayee blamed the riots for the NDA's 2004 defeat.

On the other hand, the present composition of the two alliances gives an impression of permanency, notwithstanding occasional carping over seat-sharing. If the UPA is witnessing more of these verbal skirmishes, the explanation lies in the fact that the Congress has a presence, however small, in the states which some of its allies consider to be their base.

Moreover, two factors have contributed to the Congress' greater assertiveness in the matter of seats than before. One is the confidence provided by its recent election victories in Delhi and Rajasthan, and the other is the BJP's seeming loss of the terror card, which became evident when the 26/11 Mumbai attack had no impact on the Congress' rising electoral fortune.

The Congress also apparently hopes it has largely neutralized the allegation of being "soft on terror" by its aggressive, "all options are open" stance against Pakistan in the wake of 26/11 and the appointment of a new, evidently more competent home minister.

It also believes the BJP is at a disadvantage on two counts. First, its octogenarian shadow prime minister, L.K. Advani, will not appeal to the 60 percent of voters who are under 35 years of age. And, secondly, the party's growing dependence on Modi will not only scare away the minorities but also cause uneasiness among some of its more secular-minded partners like the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Biju Janata Dal.

The conviction that it has already won half the battle has made the Congress tell its allies that instead of a nationwide alliance, it will prefer state-wise adjustments. To what extent this was a politic move cannot be said for certain for, even in its absence, there was bound to be jostling for space with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra.

These are the two states where the verbal duels have become nasty, but the scene may become equally fractious with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the LJP in Bihar and even with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. The Congress apparently believes, however, that Chief Minister Mayawati's looming presence in Uttar Pradesh will persuade the Samajwadi Party to be more accommodative.

Similarly, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's evident popularity in Bihar may compel the RJD and the LJP to come to terms with the Congress. The latter also probably does not take too seriously the NCP's dalliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

If the BJP does not face similar seat-sharing difficulties, the reason is that it is willing to play second fiddle to its partners like the JD-U in Bihar, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, the Akali Dal in Punjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. It would have done the same in Assam but for the fact that a weakened Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) after several splits has yielded the leadership role to the BJP.

Its strength comes, of course, from the states where it is in power on its own, such as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. But if the party still seems somewhat uncertain about its prospects, the reason - apart from the two mentioned above - is that it doesn't know how the incumbency factor will affect it, and also that it doesn't seem to have a vision of the future, especially after it opposed the nuclear deal in tandem with the Left.

Apart from the Big Two, there is also "the X-factor" of Mayawati, who is not closely aligned with any group although the Left expects her to be in the Third Front, comprising the Communist parties, the Telugu Desam, the Telengana Rashtra Samity and the Janata Dal-Secular.

Her hope is that her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), will get enough seats to enable her to lay claim to the prime minister's post with the Third Front's support to keep the Congress out. This was the ploy which the Left tried last year with the hope that the BJP might also pitch in. But it didn't work then and might not work this summer either.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)   


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