Congress has its Nose Ahead in the Political Race

Having won the trust vote in parliament, even if by dubious means, the Manmohan Singh government and the ruling Congress can be said to be in a more comfortable position at present than their opponents.

The latest terrorist outrages and the high rate of inflation may have soured the taste of their success in parliament, but if they have still managed to remain ahead of the pack, the reason is that their adversaries haven't yet been able to get their wits together after the defeat.

In the run-up to the next round of assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir, therefore, the Congress will be in a more confident frame of mind than its rivals.

One sign of the opposition's disorientation was the bizarre charge leveled against the government by a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader (BJP), Sushma Swaraj, that it was behind the bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad as it wanted to divert attention from the "votes for notes" scam.

She also said that the Congress wanted to win back those Muslims, who had been alienated by the nuclear deal, by targeting the BJP-ruled states.

Not surprisingly, more responsible leaders of the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have distanced themselves from the statement while Swaraj herself has subsequently said that it was her personal view. The state of disarray in the saffron camp is obvious.

A possible explanation is that all the BJP's calculations have gone wrong. While the fatuity of its charges about Manmohan Singh being the weakest prime minister and the government being in the Intensive Care Unit have become clear, the defections from the Hindutva group during the trust vote have underlined the absence of discipline and conviction.

But, worst of all, the astuteness of the BJP's prime minister-in-waiting, L.K. Advani, is being questioned in view of the suspicion that he was dragooned into opposing the nuclear deal by myopic politicians with a history of anti-Congress postures in parties and organisations outside the saffron parivar.

Yashwant Sinha, for instance, came from the Janata stable like Jaswant Singh and Sushma Swaraj, while Arun Shourie came from the media. Sinha and Shourie were the two most vocal critics of the deal.

If Advani failed to restrain them, it was perhaps because, first, he had never been too sure of his position in the party after he lost the president's post under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) following his praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah's "secularism". As such, he apparently did not want to push his own line lest there was a repeat of the Jinnah-type controversy.

Second, he may have been convinced by his own erroneous assessment of the prime minister's and the government's weaknesses to believe that the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would lose the trust vote.

After such missteps, it is not easy for a party and its leader to recover their poise. As a result, the BJP may continue to act in as bloody-minded a manner as on the nuclear deal by opposing the economic reforms as well, thereby inflicting more damage on itself.

Such cussedness can only help the government since it can claim that the Right-wing BJP has now joined the Left in stalling the reforms. Both the reforms and the nuclear deal have the backing of the middle and upper classes, which are supposed to be the BJP's "natural" allies. But this belief may no longer be true.

Of the others, the Left has compounded its own folly of being bracketed with the BJP in the public mind by expelling Speaker Somnath Chatterjee for defying the party line by refusing to resign from the post.

The step has created considerable unease among members of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in Chatterjee's home state of West Bengal. Although Chatterjee was never a front-runner in the CPI-M, having become a member of the central committee only recently, he is widely liked because of his amiable temperament in contrast to the unsmiling Stalinists who constitute the bulk of the party's top leadership.

Since it is commonly believed that the Chatterjee episode, along with the Left's position by the BJP's side in the trust vote, will lead to an erosion of its electoral strength, the communists are unlikely to be in a position to influence the government as they did during the last four years.

It may not be too presumptuous to say, therefore, that the Left will again become a marginal force in Indian politics, as it had been for a long time earlier.

The attempts which the communists are making to keep their noses above the water involve reviving the Third Front with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati's help. But the constituents of this group do not inspire much confidence, for many of them are losers in their states at the moment, whether it is the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh or the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka or the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana or the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam.

Mayawati is a winner, but she has little influence outside Uttar Pradesh. Even there, a Congress-Samajwadi Party line-up will present a formidable challenge to her in the next election. After all, the Samajwadi Party's support base of 25-26 percent has remained unchanged.

She can play the role of a spoiler, of course, by eating into the Congress's share of Dalit votes in a number of states. But to expect her to become prime minister, as her admirers have been repeatedly saying, is a vain hope. The Congress has a fair chance, therefore, to perform well in the forthcoming assembly polls and then in the general election next year.

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


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