Friday, April 10, 2009

CONGRESS ALONE IN UP, BIHAR: HARA-KIRI OR MASTERSTROKE?

A few days back , in a debate on Headlines Today on the opinion poll carried out by India Today, MJ Akbar said that the NDA would have been wiped out in Bihar had the Congress joined up with Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan in these elections. In fact he went on to say that the party had done the NDA "a huge, huge favour" and that had it been in an alliance, "in a sense, the national election might have been over". In a similar program on CNN-IBN on UP, Yogendra Yadav brought out that had the Congress and SP fought the elections together in the state, they would have together got more than 50 seats.

The India Today opinion poll predicts that the Congress will draw a blank in Bihar and will get seven seats in UP. In 2004, the party had won three and nine seats respectively in these two states.The Laloo-Paswan combine is likely to get 19 seats in Bihar, down six, and in UP, Mulayam Yadav's tally will be 29, also down six . Thus, thanks to the Congress fighting on its own, the "UPA" might lose more than 16 seats in UP and upwards of 14 seats in Bihar, if MJ Akbar's assessment is correct.

A loss of 30 seats is huge in today's scenario. Therefore, anyone will straight away deduce that by going alone, the Congress has committed nothing less than hara-kiri in these two states that send 120 MPs to the Lok Sabha. But is it really so? Would the national election actually have been over had the UPA allies fought together?

The Congress contested in only four seats in Bihar in 2004. This time it wanted just two more, but its erstwhile allies, alive to its sharp decline in the last five years due to its dependence on them, unilaterally offered it only the three seats it had won. In UP, Mulayam Yadav was a little more "generous". Although the Congress had won only nine seats on 2004, he was willing to offer it 17, almost double. But the Congress wanted no less than 24, which was not acceptable to Mulayam. Because of such humiliating treatment by clever and ambitious allies, the Congress was forced to go it alone.

Had the Congress swallowed the bitter pill and fought the elections as an alliance, what would it have really gained as a party? In Bihar it would have got three seats at best while in UP it would probably have just about got into double figures, assuming the Mulayam would have honestly transferred his voters to all Congress candidates. This means that as against the 13 odd seats that the Congress would have got in alliance in these two states, alone it is still likely to get around seven, a loss of just about six seats.

If there is one single lesson that the Congress needs to learn from the experience of leading the UPA government, it is that if there is a powerful ally who is in a position to single-handedly ensure the survival or defeat of a coalition, it is a recipe for disaster. The government is then almost completely dependent on the whims and fancies of such an ally and governance has to be sacrificed almost daily along many dimensions simply to remain in power. For all their faults, it must be stated the the communists who had the UPA government in their suffocating grasp, pushed through their agenda almost wholly on their ideology and remained otherwise scrupulously honest.

Can the same be said about the likes of Mulayam Yadav, Mayawati, Laloo Yadav, Jayalalitha, Sharad Pawar etc?

Therefore, had the Congress entered into alliances in UP and Bihar, national elections might have been over, as MJ Akbar says, but not necessarily in the manner that he thinks they would have been. The Great Betrayal of Naveen Patnaik and Laloo Yadav should open the eyes of the two national parties to one hard reality: all allies are opponents in waiting. Therefore, ways and means have to be constantly found to weaken them too.

Only a fool will believe that a Mulayam Yadav with upwards of the 40 seats that he would have got in alliance with the Congress would have remained a humble and trustworthy partner of the party after the elections. He has already entered into an alliance with Kalyan Singh of Babri Masjid fame. A few months back he had also said that an alliance with the BJP was possible if the latter gave up its demand for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and for abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution. And now he and Laloo Yadav are talking of a great Yadav alliance.

In Bihar too, an alliance would have strengthened only the deceitful Laloo Yadav and the chameleon Ram Vilas Paswan, not the Congress. Paswan, it may be recalled, was a minister in the NDA government before he turned "secular" on the eve of the 2004 elections. Laloo Yadav, besides befriending Mulayam Yadav, is now also making overtures to the Third Front, besides claiming that the Congress is just another constituent of the UPA.

A look at West Bengal will help see things more clearly. There, the situation is radically different. In 2004, the Congress had fought alone and won six seats, while the Left had swept the state, winning 35 seats. Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, then an ally of the BJP, got only one seat. This time, the Congress is contesting in 12 seats in alliance with Mamata. Although it is not likely to win even one extra seat, it will be able to breach the Left citadel with the help of Mamata who is expected to win around 10 seats, not enough to mount a serious threat to the Congress later. More significantly, the tally of the Left will come down to 25 seats or less. This, coupled with the expected victory of the Congress in Kerala, is going to leave the Left much weakened with around 35 seats, against the 59 that they had in the previous Lok Sabha.

West Bengal perfectly illustrates the point that it is much better for the Congress to have two weak allies/opponents rather than one strong ally with a veto power in a situation where it is not able to get a majority on its own.

That is why the Congress may actually have unwittingly played a masterstroke by going it alone in Bihar and UP. One does not need great imagination to visualise the havoc that the Yadav combo of Laloo and Mulayam with 60 plus seats would have caused to a UPA government. If the Congress now emerges as the single largest party then not only will it easily form the next government, but it will also be in a position to fend off threats and blackmails from these alliance partners against whom it is fighting because none of them will be strong enough to threaten the government on their own. Therefore, as long as the BJP does not beat it as the largest single party, it will be, paradoxically, serve the interest of the Congress if the BJP takes away as many seats as possible from its allies in these two states.

Yes, there is a tiny risk that the the BJP might emerge emerge as the largest party solely because of the six-odd seats that the Congress is going to lose in UP and Bihar by going it alone there. But this is a risk that the Congress has to learn how to take from now on, if it wants to remain a national party that wants to meaningfully lead any coalition government that it may form in future. Otherwise, it will by and by completely disappear electorally from the states that it is weak in, and will sooner rather than later find itself supporting a government led by a much smaller but numerically powerful ally/allies who can dictate terms to it.

If one thinks of it, exactly the same applies to the other national party, the BJP.
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2. Can the Congress stem its slide?
3. Rahul, Varun and the politics of hate
4. UPA in tatters in Bihar
5. Fourth Front to get lucky