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The Return of the King

Sunday, June 7th, 2009
Manmohan Singh

Indian National Congress. A name that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue today in India. The elections for the 15th Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, has been altogether captured by this 125–year-old-party. It is crystal clear now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will head the newly elected government led by congress (206).

The big question that is arising here is how the absolute-right BJP was defeated despite all the predictions of a hung house and how has the ruling United Progressive Alliance managed to grab the majority?

Well, the answer is not so tough. It’s very pathetic to say that the opposition National Democratic Alliance failed to persecute the ruling coalition through its firebrand young bloods such as Varun Gandhi, who made adverse statements about minorities during his election campaign in Pilibheet, a parliamentary constituency of the largest state in the country, Uttar Pradesh. During the election campaign, even the BJP didn’t condemn the statements of Varun. This suicidal stand helped the party gain cheap popularity among some of its strongholds, but it failed to convert that into total popular votes throughout the country. It wasn’t just leaders like Varun who tried to achieve their target through nasty sloganeering, but also some statements by the opposition leader and PM-in-waiting (still), Mr. L.K. Advani. Yet, when the prime minister hit back with a stinging riposte to say that the BJP leader’s main achievement was the demolition of the Babri masjid, Advani had to concede on television that he had been “hurt.”

On the other hand, Congress gained from the image of sobriety projected by Manmohan Singh, which was enhanced by his reputation for personal integrity, and from the energetic campaigning of Congress President Sonia and General Secretary Rahul Gandhi. Even if the party was taunted for its dependence on the dynasty, it did not seem to bother the average voter, as earlier experience has shown.

The average voter was also apparently not bothered by the withdrawal of a longstanding Interpol notice at the behest of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against Italian businessman, Ottavio Quattrocchi, who is an accused in the Bofors scam. Or by the Congress’s reluctance to recover the dirty money stashed abroad, as alleged by the BJP.

The BJP’s meal was soured by a decision of projected Chief Minister of Gujarat Mr. Narendra Modi as a theme leader of the party. The evil deed resulted in an apology from the party after the defeat. After the declaration of results, BJP leader Chandan Mitra said that projecting Modi as the party’s next prime ministerial candidate was a mistake, indicating that it could be a factor in the party’s poor showing in the elections. “Bringing up Narendra Modi’s name in the middle of the campaign was a serious error of judgment,” Mitra said, analyzing the election results on a television channel.

Not only Mitra, but the allies of the BJP are saying that the projection of Modi and Varun led the coalition down. NDA’s convener Sharad Yadav said, “It may be right or wrong or he [Varun] might have denied it, but his statement has caused immense damage. His statement was unconstitutional. It was against the country’s unity and must have affected the polls.” When asked whether references that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi could be a future prime ministerial candidate had affected the prospects of NDA, Yadav, who is also JD(U) president, said the eruption of the issue indeed had confused the people. “It was a factor. When the issue had come up, it created confusion in the peoples’ minds. Since the NDA had already declared a prime ministerial candidate [L.K. Advani] unanimously, the issue should have been dismissed immediately.”

Hence, it is well indicated that the success of the Congress is attributed to the fact that it was a political confrontation devoid of the kind of emotional content, which its principal opponent, the BJP, customarily exploits on such occasions. As a result, the normality of the contest meant that the BJP could not whip up what it likes to term as “nationalistic sentiment” in its favor. It did try various pseudo-religious, pro-Hindu tacks, such as promising to build the Ram temple or saving the Ram sethu. But clearly, none of these worked for the BJP. The major reason behind it is because the voters had realized that these were no more than cynical electoral ploys.

Singh and Gandhi

In Congress, Singh and Gandhi meet after the election results

Apart from the hate politics of the opposition, some outstanding works of the UPA government made way for a ruling alliance to sit comfortably in the treasury bench. One such effort was implementing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act throughout the country, which benefited many workers living below the poverty line. This act assures 90 days of employment and/or minimum wage payment even without work. This success also includes the pro-people economic policies of one of the world’s best economists, Manmohan Singh, which prevented the country from searing in the absolute heat of the global recession. Even as it fights back against criticism on the fiscal front, the UPA says that its record in economic development has been strong, arguing that flagship schemes like the Nuclear Power Program, the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and Bharat Nirman, have helped bring economic growth to the masses. One cannot abruptly deny these claims of the ruling alliance.

Now, with the success of the UPA, particularly Congress, a big political question arises about the future of the BJP and some regional parties. The BJP has done less well than expected. The party has 120 seats, down 18 from what it had in 2004. The Left party has suffered the most significant reversal in the polls. The CPI(M) of West Bengal and Kerala have presumably lost their case against capitalism in general and against Prime Minister Singh’s “nuclear deal” with the United States in particular. Indirectly, this indicates that the electorate supports a strategic partnership between India and America.

The BJP is now in a dilemma of leadership. After the defeat, L.K. Advani has expressed his desire to quit as the leader of the opposition. The trouble is with the BJP is that, after Advani, there is a crisis of leadership. Sangh Parivar (RSS) is also reluctant, and with a suppressed tongue the opposition is seeking Advani’s retirement. In such a situation, an easilyacceptable leader will not be easy to choose, because the party is already in disarray. Therefore, there’s a huge challenge ahead for the BJP to stabilize itself in the coming years and to deliver a leader with an acceptable face. Not like Modi or Varun, who have cast a cloud over the party.

Not only the Left and BJP, but the BSP and regional parties have to review their place in a country of 1.3 billion people. Unexpectedly, the Dalit charisma of Kumari Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the UP has not made inroads into the Congress vote. Her party has won 21 seats, gaining just two. She was supposed to win as many as 50 seats and become the wild card set to chisel Congress’ support and finally force it to take the UP-dominant party-without-an-agenda into its coalition. It’s an old tradition to introduce election manifesto by the political parties in India, but the BSP is against this tradition. It contested the election without any manifesto.

Mayawati had expected to make a major impact on the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. So much so, it projected the polls as one that would pave the way for the rise of the first Dalit Prime Minister in the country. The party presented itself as a political ally of the Left-led Third Front, though it did not have seat adjustments with any of the Third Front constituents. It also tried to strengthen its fortunes, particularly with the Muslim minorities, by taking an aggressive line against Varun Gandhi’s anti-Muslim speech and invoking NSA against the BJP’s Gandhi. It continued to make the projection about the need for a Dalit Prime Minister, too, in the course of the campaign and asserted that it would be done as part of a non-Congress, non-BJP combination. It also tried to spread far and wide by contesting as many as 488 seats across the country. But as the results conclusively proved, all this failed to enthuse the masses.

There are some possible consequences of a Congress-led alliance victory. Firstly, the UPA will now be fully independent, which will allow it to call the shots in coalition-building rather than being dependent on the goodwill of a host of regional parties. No doubt about the stable government of a coalition that will last another full five-year term.

The election result is also a setback for regional, caste-based parties and the communists who were once seen as indispensable to any coalition formation. The result may force the main Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party to search for a new leader to replace the 81-yearold Lal Krishna Advani. Unfettered by an absence of difficult allies, the Congress could push for further liberalization of the insurance, pension and banking sectors, moves that were blocked by its former communist allies. It could also look at stake sales in or the listing of some state-run firms to raise resources to fund its development programs. It could also use innovative financial tools as well as some rate cuts from the central bank. The government could also now forcefully ask commercial banks to cut lending rates in order for monetary policy to make an impact. A renewed focus on the agriculture sector after the rural vote proved decisive for the Congress’ strong electoral performance. The government could build on the success of a NREGS(A) and expand its scope to cover the entire country. Higher subsidies for the poor, including cheaper staples, cheaper farm loans, crop insurance and wider health insurance coverage could be in the cards. This could lead to higher market borrowings, which may further push the fiscal deficit beyond the present consolidated deficit of around 10 percent.

After emerging as a “strong politician,” Mr. Singh will definitely get special attention from America and neighboring countries alike. Noting that India and the U.S. have common interests in many issues like combating terrorism and putting the global economy back on track, the Obama administration is set to seek an expanded strategic partnership with New Delhi. Interest has been expressed by Ambassador Robert O. Blake, who was nominated by Obama as the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. “If confirmed, a top priority for me and for the Bureau of South and Central Asia will be to seek an expanded strategic partnership with India,” Blake said in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Now it is considered that India, with its vibrant democracy and rapidly expanding economy, can be an anchor of stability and opportunity for South and Central Asia and will be more effective in combating terrorism in the region.

A leading newspaper of Pakistan, The Daily Times, sees a perspective of hope stating that while post-election India will be in a better mood to pay heed to the international efforts to normalize relations with Pakistan – to begin with, lessen the Indian military presence on the border. Pakistan may find itself challenged by Mr. Singh’s insistence that Pakistan punish the Mumbai attack culprits. By insisting less on the maxim of “South Asia for South Asians,” India has gained special leverage in dealing with Pakistan, whose economic survival now depends totally on the U.S. and its allies. Letting the Americans become arbiters in the “Afghan- Pak crisis” has taken India out of isolation as it deals with its neighbors. Pakistan will be under pressure to proceed against the Taliban, who it has acknowledged as being located on its soil, even though its courts feel inclined to let them off. India will probably be willing to sign trade deals, but anything that Pakistan wants from India will be put on the back burner until Pakistan delivers on the jihadists in addition to the Taliban.

Along these steps, it is expected the newly-mandated PM will build on ties with the U.S. and fully implement the nuclear deal it signed with Washington in 2008. The government will push for more say in global economic and political policy-making in entities such as the United Nations Security Council, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Aloof about the expectations of political pundits, the new government must fulfill the basic needs of the trailing society, which is most in need at present. Execution is beginning to matter in politics. It is only honesty from the leadership that leads to a value-based victory at the UPA’s end, and it must deliver in order to stay alive.

(With input from agencies.)

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