Fractured verdict, future tense

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So what happens after the hung Lok Sabha verdict of May 2009? This is what happens

Hardnews Bureau

May 15, 2009. The future is here.

Results to all the Parliament seats have been declared. The Congress and the BJP have hung on to the same number of seats that they had in the last Parliament. A depressing 143 for the Congress and a miserable 130 for the BJP. The UPA and NDA, too, do not have the numbers to form the government without the support of the truncated and devalued Left parties or the mercurial and ambitious Mayawati.

How soon will India get its next government?

In this futuristic scenario, as this essay visualises, what is the line between despair and hope?

The urgency has deepened by the speed at which the economy has begun to falter after the country went into poll mode two-and-a-half months ago. Companies are defaulting in their loan repayments. Job losses are mounting steadily. The stock market, too, in the absence of government-guided intervention, has nosedived to a new low. The economy is looking very shaky and hardly "insulated" from the global contagion as the earlier UPA government's ministers had irresponsibly claimed in the past.

And then, there is this terror attack in Delhi. Despite the Election Commission's obsession with security, the much-expected and anticipated terror strike still managed to take everyone by surprise. Fortunately, the security forces in central Delhi stood up to the attack and shot down the terrorists, not before a dozen odd people had been killed.

The UPA was hoping to win the national elections on the strength of its performance. After all, they had sunk in thousands of crores of rupees in its ‘flagship programmes' like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the urban renewal mission or the loan waiver scheme. While huge infusion of funds in banks and the rural economy had helped in keeping the financial system afloat, it never gave the UPA, especially, the Congress, the dividends they were looking for. Their election campaign of being the best party for the worst times did not work. Their expectation of a bounce in their fortunes after the Mumbai attack got dissipated after the Delhi face-off.

What also did not work in its favour was the drafting of Priyanka Gandhi in the election campaign. She campaigned all over the country. But she could not make much of a difference in the caste-ridden states of UP and Bihar -- two states that bring 120 seats to Parliament. The only cheer came in Andhra Pradesh (AP), where the Congress managed to save a few seats.

The BJP, too, did not do any better. They hung on to their respective strengths and did not make much of the anti-incumbency that could have benefited them. All through the campaign, the party looked listless. Their loud slogans had a vacuous ring to it. The BJP leadership had hoped that the Delhi terror attack would transform their fortunes, but it did not. The Congress kept on harping on the strong terror laws that were brought in after the Mumbai attack. In some ways, voters stuck to their preferences like they did after the Mumbai carnage in December 2008.

Interestingly, voting behaviour and results are a mirror image of what happened during the assembly elections where anti-incumbency did not work against strong leaders. In the assembly elections, the Congress that ruled Delhi got back the capital, BJP had retained Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Congress wrested Rajasthan from BJP; but it was more a technical knockout.

In Parliament elections, the parties displayed similar form. The Congress had done better than expected in AP, but lost seats to the grand alliance led by Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu. Congress Chief Minister YSR Reddy's muscular leadership helped his party to ride out of the anti-incumbency caused by his five years in power. After all, the party showcased AP as the state where its programmes like NREGA and loan-waiver worked the best. Campaigning by Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, too, helped the party. Satyam scam's debilitating impact was limited to a few towns and cities. It hurt YSR more in the assembly elections, where the verdict seemed hung -- splitting three ways between the Congress, the TDP-led alliance and Chiranjeevi's outfit.

The Congress was hurt this time by poor performance by its allies. Lalu Prasad Yadav and M Karunanidhi did very badly. Yadav found that there was no anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar and Karunanidhi realised just the opposite. The general principle of strong state leaders fighting anti-incumbency seemed to work all over the country. The BJP did well in MP, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. They benefited from the good performance of their allies in Bihar and Orissa.

In the Left bastions of Kerala and West Bengal, the communists did quite badly. In Kerala, the Left Front lost majority of the seats they had won last time. Poor leadership, factional fighting and allegations of corruption cost the CPM dearly. The Congress won 14 seats. In West Bengal, the CPM lost a lot of ground. Reluctance of the Congress to have an alliance with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress allowed them to hang on to majority of the seats. The Congress did not want to rub into the Left's misery as they were mindful of the role it would play in the post-poll scenario.

However, the real battle was fought in UP, where the BSP's Mayawati fought toe-to-toe and heel-to-heel against the (SP) Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. The alliance between the two parties was necessitated by two reasons: the Congress leadership felt this would prevent the BSP from winning beyond 50 seats. Secondly, it will allow Sonia Gandhi and Rahul to have a relatively safe passage from their parliamentary seats. The belief was that if the Congress did not have an alliance with any of the regional parties -- in this case the SP -- then it would be difficult for their top leaders to win easily. Despite this alliance, the SP-Congress combine barely got 30 with Congress retaining its 9 seats. The BJP, surprisingly, put up a good performance and won 13 seats -- an improvement of 3 seats. Mayawati puts up a strong show winning 35 seats.

All these wins and losses add up to great confusion. The Congress-led UPA gets 200 seats and the BJP's NDA has 180. Congress beats LK Advani's party by a whisker and is hopeful of a call from the president. But can it prove its majority?

Although the issue of fighting communal forces remains compelling, May 2009 is different from May 2004 in many ways. The Gujarat carnage of  2002 continues to excise secular minds. But, it has, of late, been taken over by the anxiety among Muslims about the conduct of the police. Terror attacks allegedly by Indian Mujahideen (IM), an outfit of young Indian Muslims, have given the police reasons to act on the stereotype: all Muslims are possible terrorists. This was proved yet again by the Batla House encounter in Delhi.

The only happening that applied a salve to the hurt psyche of Muslims (and secular Indians) was the investigation conducted by Mumbai Anti-Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare. He had revealed that there were Hindutva terrorists who had triggered bombs in Malegaon. Earlier, for both the incidents, Muslims were blamed. The Urdu media had shown how Indian Muslims were being wrongly accused and branded for crimes they had not committed. Karkare died mysteriously during the Mumbai terror attack feeding conspiracy theories.

Despite the need to put together a government that is secular and has the experience to handle this monumental economic crisis, there are no honest brokers who can accomplish this task. CPM leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet tirelessly worked to put together a secular government in 2004. He is no more. Neither is VP Singh around. The former prime minister had told Left parties that the Congress under Sonia Gandhi was best qualified to fight communal forces. The Congress, accepted Left support, and spurned SP's offer of support. The common minimum programme (CMP) defined the Left's relationship with the UPA.

With Surjeet and VP not around, the burden to form the government and, later, help it prove its majority is falling on a garrulous Amar Singh who is comfortable dealing with both the BJP and the Congress. A badly hung house after the April-May 2009 elections has given him an opportunity to display his impressive repertoire of uncanny skills. "He is a dangerous man," a regional leader told Hardnews, who met Singh. A master at taping conversations and making DVDs through sting operations, Singh reportedly keeps evidence against both his friends and foes. It comes handy, his friends say, to manipulate certain decisions in his favour.

During the run-up to the elections, Amar Singh wormed his way to become close to many regional leaders. In some meetings, he managed to force an entry even when he was not invited. Interestingly, the Left parties had deflated his ego and enterprise before the elections when they refused to entertain him. That has not stopped him from putting together something called a fourth front. The thinking behind the "fourth front" is that it hopes to extract its pound of flesh from the national parties that wants its support. Comprising of new freelancers, the fourth front wants to corner all the meaty money-making portfolios. And, this time around, there is no one to stop Singh or his corporate backers who want a desperate bailout from cash-rich Indian banks. This is a task that can be easily executed by controlling the government.

Singh works on the minds of those in the Congress who desperately want to return to power. He takes advantage of the fissures that exist in our political system that make coalition formation a tricky exercise. This is more so after the Left refused to support the Congress. The nuclear deal (strategic alliance with the US and Manmohan Singh's pro-big business economic policies) ruptured a relationship that would have defined India's future development path.

The template that Singh and others have in mind is to get the Congress and Left to support a government like that of Chandrashekhar in 1990-91. "The single largest party would get the offer to form the government. So Singh's enterprise has its limitation," claimed a legal source. But, what happens when the Left's recalcitrance and Mayawati's obduracy results in the Congress not proving its majority?

Singh is working hard to put his foot in such a door where he gets the Congress and the Left to support their formation from outside to keep the "communal" BJP at bay. Amar Singh would be backed by a clutch of businessmen who want help from the government and public sector to ease their woes. A friendly government could make so much difference to those who thrive by manipulating policies. Will the likes of Amar Singh succeed in the coming days?

Epilogue: Such a dangerous reality stares at India, if there is not enough pressure from the constituents and civil society to prevent the brazenly dubious and dangerous hijacking of Indian democracy in the name of forming a government.