Congress has its nose ahead in coming general election

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

There is a surface similarity between the last general election and the next one, which is just over two months away. In 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was so sure of its success that it went into a blue funk when it lost. This time, too, the ruling Congress’s chances of victory are being widely acknowledged.

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But the reason is different from what the conditions were five years ago. At that time, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s image which was expected to lead the BJP to the winning podium. But, as Vajpayee later said, it was Narendra Modi’s role during the Gujarat riots which probably deprived his party of success.

The Congress, on the other hand, will be hard put to specify any reason for its present sense of confidence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may be widely respected, but he is not as charismatic as Vajpayee was even in his declining years. Besides, there is a question mark over his future, which has deepened after his heart bypass surgery.

Sonia Gandhi may be more of a crowd-puller, as is Rahul Gandhi. But neither the Congress president nor her son is expected to don the prime minister’s mantle. The former will not want to revive the controversy over her foreign origin while Rahul is still considered too young and inexperienced to take charge.

The uncertainty about the capability of the next rung of leadership was highlighted by the distribution of various official functions between Vice-President Mohammed Hamid Ansari, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Defence Minister A.K. Antony during the Republic Day celebrations in view of Manmohan Singh’s absence.

In all probability, therefore, the Congress’s choice will still be Manmohan Singh though few expect him to be there for the next five years. Instead, he is expected to keep the seat warm for Rahul till he is ready to take over.

Notwithstanding these imponderables, if the Congress is still perceived to have its nose ahead in the race, the reason has less to do with its own achievements than with the failures of the BJP, its main adversary.

The doubts about the BJP’s prospects stem from what a saffron scribe has described as its loss of nerve after its defeats in the Delhi and Rajasthan elections. The party’s admirers may tell it that it won two other elections at the same time in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and that, too, by beating the so-called anti-incumbency factor.

But if the BJP does not seem too enthusiastic about these successes, the explanation perhaps lies in the fact that these were based on the development planks of the two state governments, and not on any emotive issue.

Yet, the BJP has become so accustomed to winning on the basis of sensitive issues relating to religion and nationalism, such as the temple agenda in the 1990s and the terror threat more recently, that its cadres are not enthused by the mundane preoccupation with roads, power, drinking water, etc.

In a way, the wheel of fortune seemed to have gone into reverse gear for the BJP from July last year when it lost the trust vote in parliament on the nuclear deal. Till then, it was riding high, winning a series of elections in Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka.

The party was also sure that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s apparent failure to counter the terrorist threat gave the BJP a head start because of its strident nationalist credentials.

But, then, it all went wrong. First, the UPA survived the trust vote. And, second, the voters opted for the Congress in Delhi and Rajasthan even as Mumbai was experiencing the havoc caused by the Pakistan-based terrorists.

The loss of its terror card – the temple card had become defunct earlier – meant that the BJP has been left high and dry without an issue for the forthcoming poll. In contrast, the Congress has redeemed its position to some extent by sacking the ineffective Shivraj Patil from the home ministry and appointing the evidently more efficient P. Chidambaram in his place.

The tough diplomatic approach to Pakistan may have also helped the Congress to shed its earlier image of timidity.

It is also possible that the BJP’s six years in power from 1998 to 2004, during which the Kargil incursion by the Pakistani forces took place, has prevented it from reiterating the earlier demand for bombing the terrorist hideouts in Pakistan, which once used to be its favourite propaganda ploy. The party, and the people at large, seem to have realised the danger and futility of such showy manoeuvres.

There are other difficulties for the BJP as well. The age of L.K. Advani, its 81-year-old prime ministerial candidate, is an evident disadvantage at a time when there will be 100 million new voters. As if this was not enough, another octogenarian veteran of the party,former vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, has thrown his hat into the ring.

Shekhawat is already said to have played his part in bringing down the BJP’s government in Rajasthan. Now, he is queering the pitch for Advani.

Like the BJP, another of the Congress’s opponents, the Left, is in trouble. While the shifting of the Tatas’ small car factory from West Bengal to Gujarat has rung the death-knell for the industrialisation plans of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, the alleged involvement of the secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)’s Kerala unit in a financial scandal has hurt the Left’s image.

Since the comrades are in trouble in both their strongholds, the chances of the Third Front, led by them, taking off seem dismal. With it, the hopes of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati becoming prime minister with the Left’s help have faded.

There is every chance, therefore, of the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and forming the next government with more or less the same parties which are now in the UPA.

(31.1.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])