Monday, March 16, 2009

IT'S A TWO-HORSE RACE TO RACE COURSE ROAD

Forget about all pre-poll surveys that have recently been carried out and the projections made by them about the outcome of the forthcoming general elections. They are already out of date. The whole electoral scenario has changed dramatically, but no one has either seen it yet or everyone wants to pretend that he hasn't. The change not ordinary, nor is it temporary. It has quietly been in the making for some years now and would have taken some more time to be visible to all. But, one event has radically altered that time-frame.

Tomorrow is already here today.

CPM general secretary Prakash Karat has been unusually enthused by Patnaik's most unexpected decision which has breathed life into the till now non-existent Third Front. Suddenly this motley group of marginal and small parties that are presently not aligned to either the BJP-led NDA or the Congress-led UPA finds that it may well be in a position to form the government with the help of elements of the NDA or the UPA, rather than vanishing into the group that emerges stronger. There is new energy in the parties that have cobbled together this alternative to the BJP and the Congress.

Prakash Karat did not know how prophetic his words were going to be when he said that Patnaik's decision to part company with the BJP was going to be the "game-changer" in these elections. It is going to change the game certainly, but not in the manner in which Karat thinks it is going to.

Perhaps even the BJP has not realised that Naveen Patnaik's sudden turn is the blessing it was looking for and is the one miracle that will get the NDA within striking distance of the magic figure of 272 MPs needed to form the government. Naveen Patnaik himself would not have dreamt that by parting company with its ally of 11 years he would become the catalyst that is going to so dramatically pre-pone the manifestation of the fundamental change already under way in the Indian political landscape.

This general election has now become a contest between Mayawati and Advani. No, I have not gone out of my mind, as you will presently discover much to your surprise. This election was not meant be seeing this contest; the fight between the BJP and the BSP was scheduled for 2014 at the earliest. But, Naveen Patnaik has changed all that.

In the 2007 assembly elections in UP, no one, except perhaps Sagarika Ghose, had given Mayawati any chance of winning and that too on her own steam alone. But when the election results came in, her BSP had an absolute majority and the Congress, despite the high-profile induction of Rahul Gandhi as its star campaigner, emerged even weaker, with just around 8% of the vote share. Mayawati had done the impossible. This is what I had written then itself:

    The UP election signals a tectonic, historical shift in the societal power matrix of Hindu society. And who has Mayawati to thank, among others for seeing and grabbing the opportunity? Mr Mandal, of course, milked to death by completely opportunistic and dishonest politicians thinking they can fool the masses, simply to grab power in the next election....And, it has taken a Hindi speaking "uncultured" Dalit lady to understand the hidden, but obvious now, ramifications of Mandal...So when Mayawati, a Dalit, untouchables still in parts of India, asks Brahmins to vote for her and tells them with conviction that they do not have to go begging to anyone to get their due, it touches their raw nerve, and they willingly turn thousands of years of rigid social hierarchy upside down to seek empowerment and justice from a dalit. Mayawati has envisioned and achieved something which no politician thought she could.

After the stunning success in UP, Mayawati started earnestly to expand her base in other parts of India and put up candidates in the assembly elections that followed. Although the BSP had virtually no organisational base in most other states and no real local leaders too, Mayawati succeeded in pulling in a sufficient number of dalit voters from the Congress due to which the Congress lost in a number of constituencies across the country. The BSP did not win too because of its small base then but its presence damaged the Congress almost exclusively. That led to the Congress dubbing her a "spoiler", not realising that she was not in the political arena to make or mar the fortunes of other parties but to get to power at the Centre on her own.

Mayawati has not been putting up candidates in states other than UP to ‘spoil’ the chances of the Congress. That has been happening as a by-product of her strategy to build an all India base, like she did in UP, to eventually get enough MPs to become the Prime Minister almost entirely on her own steam. There is little doubt that Mayawati will get to South Block as the head of a truly national party that she is in the process of transforming the BSP into, in due course of time, perhaps by the next elections or the one after that. But she is in a hurry and is not willing to give up just because she does not have the numbers now.

Those who have any doubts about her openly stated ambition may recall that during the Trust Vote on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal in July 2008, there was a moment when it appeared that the government would be defeated. From nowhere, Mayawati, with just 17 MPs emerged as the almost undisputed leader of the entire non-BJP opposition, ready to take over from Dr Manmohan Singh had he lost the vote. With the entire opposition behind her, she was sure that she would be able to prevail upon the BJP to support the government of the "daughter of a dalit".

Naveen Patnaik has, unwittingly, provided Mayawati with an even better a more visible opportunity on which she has time to work on. She has apparently caught on to it in a flash while others are still stuck in the linear equation that sees the BJP's chances of winning almost completely jeopardised. That is why everyone has missed the significance of Mayawati's statement on March 15, 2009, that the BSP will fight the elections all alone and will not enter into any pre-poll alliance with anybody. This statement made just before she hosted a dinner for the leaders of the National Front is going to fundamentally impact the outcome of the election.

There should be little doubt in anyone's mind that unless Mayawati suffers serious reverses, there is no one else who she will allow to head a National Front government. Others can make all the noise they want to but that is the only way she will play the game and without her 35 to 50 MPs no National Front Government is possible. Mayawati is not one to let an opportunity go. On the contrary, she creates one where no one else can spot it. Therefore, with that issue summarily out of the way, she is now going to play a devastating "spoiler" for the Congress all over India.

By now, she has spread her wings even into the South where she held a number of successful rallies recently. Her candidates are not going to win many seats outside of UP even in these elections. But by choosing to fight alone, she has made her long term intention of emerging as a true national party absolutely clear. And there is little that anyone can do to stop her.

But what is of immediate significance is that dalits will be now more charged than ever before because they can see that there is a real chance of seeing a dalit Prime Minister emerge after this election itself. So, there are going to be many more desertions of dalit voters from the Congress to the BSP than anyone would even like to imagine now. That will hit the Congress very hard and cost it many seats, the exact number depending on local factors and the smartness of its opponents.

The scenario fits in perfectly with Mayawati's immediate as well as long term strategy. If the Congress and its allies fall well short of striking distance of the half-way mark which they cannot cover without the support of Mayawati, then the Congress will have no choice but to support a Mayawati-led government. So a poor performance by the Congress is what Mayawati wants and that is what she is going to try and ensure in all constituencies where the dalit vote can make that crucial difference between victory and defeat for the Congress.

Ironically, in many such constituencies the Congress will wind up losing to the BJP. So, the BJP will end up emerging stronger and will most likely put up a performance better than it did last time. BJP strategists need to get their data sheets out in a hurry so that they can identify and focus on such constituencies to ensure that the Congress does lose. That is where there is a dilemma for Mayawati. If the BJP-led NDA gets too close to the magic figure then she will miss the bus. Therefore, the best case scenario for her is a weakened Congress that is left with no choice but to support her as PM and a BJP that does not become strong enough to beat her to that mark.

Naveen Patnaik has turned the election on its head and all but ensured the defeat of the Congress. This scenario was going to unfold in the coming years in any case but is already upon us. Increasingly, the Congress and the BSP are targetting the same voters. In fact it would not be incorrect to say that the BSP is the Congress party with a dalit face. The growth of the BSP, therefore, has been and will be in proportion to the decline of the Congress. And, the way things are going, more and more dalits will desert the Congress for the BSP and will hasten the former's marginalisation.

Posturing apart, this election has now become a two-horse race between Mayawati and Advani, between the BSP and the BJP. The rest are going to be little more than the supporting cast. At this point it is difficult to say which of the two will emerge the winner. So, when you go out there to cast your vote, remember that your vote is going to directly or indirectly help in deciding whether it will be Mayawati or LK Advani who will be the next occupant of 7 Race Course Road.

This post has also been published by Chicago Sun Times
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Readers may also read:
1. Will the Congress do better without Sonia and Rahul?
2. The cleansing battle for Delhi begins
3. Mayawati: spoiler or saviour?
4. Mayawati's hug of death
5. Mayawati and dalit power