A tempestuous election scene – and never a dull moment

By Amulya Ganguli,

It is turning out to be one of the most tempestuous polls in recent memory. Every party is being buffeted by gale force electoral winds. Perhaps the most battered is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not only did it lose a decade-old ally, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa, the nearly week-long spat between party president Rajnath Singh and chief election strategist Arun Jaitley also deeply embarrassed the BJP.

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To cap it all, the virulent anti-Muslim speech by one of its campaigners, Varun Gandhi of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has had the party squirming in discomfort. With the Election Commission demanding an explanation from the BJP – Varun Gandhi himself has got anticipatory bail – it’s like a bad dream for the saffron outfit.

However, the position of its main adversary, the Congress, is only slightly better. While the BJP has had little trouble with its electoral allies, except in Bihar, where it is being forced by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United to yield ground in the matter of sharing seats, the Congress is at loggerheads with nearly all its partners, whether it is the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar or the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra.

The reason is that although the Congress has lost its earlier influence in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, its belief that the party is on a better wicket this time – mainly because of the BJP’s problems – has made it demand more seats than its allies are willing to concede.

The fallout has been a lot of bad blood between the Congress on one side and the RJD and LJP on the other because the latter are unwilling to give it more than three out of the 40 parliamentary constituencies in Bihar. The Congress has not only rejected the offer but has tried to get its own back in neighbouring Jharkhand by cutting the LJP out altogether in the matter of allocating seats and giving the RJD only two.

It is the same story in Uttar Pradesh where the Congress has found the Samajwadi Party’s offer of six seats to it out of 80 humiliating.

What these squabbles mean is that there will be “friendly fights” between these constituents of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the centre, not only in the Hindi heartland states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh but also in Maharashtra, where the Congress is engaged in similar skirmishes with the NCP.

Apart from these battles which, after all, are only to be expected in an election where there are unlikely to be any outright winners at the centre, there are also some curious cross-currents in Maharashtra.

Although the BJP has managed to strike a deal with its long-time ally, the Shiv Sena, the former is still uneasy about the openly parochial Sena’s preference for the Marathi NCP chief, Sharad Pawar, union agriculture minister and former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), as the next prime minister.

It is not only the BJP which is annoyed by this virtual snub to its own shadow prime minister, L.K. Advani, the Congress, too, is unhappy because it doesn’t know exactly what game Pawar is playing.

Pawar has, of course, disavowed any interest in the post and backed Manmohan Singh. But the days when a politician could be trusted have long been over.

So, the uneasiness remains among the two major parties because it is known that any MP can aspire to be the PM if he or she can get a sufficient number of parliamentarians behind him or her.

This is where the so-called Third Front comes in – the newly-formed motley group comprising the four communist parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the BJD, the Telugu Desam, the Janata Dal-Secular, the AIADMK and the Haryana Janhit Party.

Sponsored mainly by Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the aim of this conglomerate is to win about 100 seats and then try to form a government, perhaps by roping in Pawar and Nitish Kumar.

The only snag is that the front hasn’t been able to project an image of unity. For one, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati of the BSP, who has made no secret of her prime ministerial ambitions, has refused to enter into any seat-sharing arrangement with her allies in the belief that she can win enough seats on her own, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where the BSP runs a single-party government.

For another, the AIADMK’s Jayalalitha pointedly stayed away from the Third Front’s first rally in Tumkur in Karnataka (as did Mayawati) and also from the dinner hosted by Mayawati in Delhi. Besides, it has always been felt that it will be difficult for these two ego-centric leaders to be in the same alliance.

Not surprisingly, the veteran CPI-M leader, Jyoti Basu, has discounted the possibility of the Third Front forming a government while Karat has said that it may seek the Congress’ support to do so. Considering that Karat played a leading role in trying to topple the Manmohan Singh government on the nuclear deal last July, this climb-down suggests that the obverse can become the reality with sections of the front, mainly the Left, supporting a Congress-led government.

Given these diverse trends, there will not be a dull moment in the run-up to the elections.

(21.3.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])