Saturday, May 16, 2009

SINGH IS THE PEOPLE'S KING

All fears that the country was in for a long period of instability, with regional players holding the government and the two national parties to ransom, have been been decisively put to rest by India's astute voters. The ruling UPA, beating the best forecasts, has romped home with 260 seats, leaving the NDA far behind with 158 seats. The so-called Third and Fourth Fronts have all but evaporated.

Last year, Dr Manmohan Singh showed the steel many thought he did not have when he threatened to resign if the Indo-US Nuclear Deal did not go through. At that time, he was criticised by many media luminaries and others, including Congressmen, some of whom even questioned the right of a "nominated" Prime Minister to create a political crisis which could lead to the downfall of the government prematurely. Congress-leaning journalists like Vir Sanghvi and Vinod Mehta, in fact, tore into the PM for his obduracy which saw the 59 MP strong Left withdraw support to the UPA government.

Like me, many other Indians, notwithstanding the fact that they did not understand the intricacies of the Deal, were then behind Dr Manmohan Singh, due to the basic understanding that if a spotless, non-political man like him was taking such a strong stand that could cost him his job, it had to be for the good of the country. No one was in any doubt that he had no hidden personal agenda of the sick variety that virtually all Indian politicians do. Most also knew that Congressmen were opposing the deal only because they were putting their own continuance in power ahead of the national interest that was energising Dr Manmohan Singh.

As a result of what the nation saw then, two very significant and interrelated things happened. First was that Dr Manmohan Singh earned unprecedented admiration and respect of Indians cutting across party lines and even of those who were 'apolitical' like him. The second was that LK Advani emerged from the issue with his image badly damaged, thanks to the ugly manner in which he and the BJP opposed the Deal solely on petty political considerations and the way in which the party unsuccessfully tried to strike a dirty deal with Mulayam Yadav to overthrow the government and grab power in a hurry.

Then itself, I had questioned Advani's ability to lead his party and become the PM, and had gone to extent of recommending that it would be better if he handed over the reins of the BJP to another leader. It was clear to me at least that Advani was less than half the man that he appeared to be with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and that he just did not have it in him to inspire people. He was palpably second best when compared to Dr Manmohan Singh by a long margin. But, the BJP persisted with him out of deference to his age and seniority, and declared him its Prime Ministerial candidate.

Perhaps the most significant fall out of the Deal, which no analyst picked up then, was the big hit that the image of the Left took after it withdrew support to the government, four years after supporting it from the outside without any responsibility and after having held it to ransom repeatedly during this period. The absolute arrogance of Prakash Karat and company climaxed in the manner in which they treated Lok Sabha Speaker Som Nath Chatterjee and expelled him from the CPM, for going with the Congress on the Deal.

Now it is more than evident that the people of the two states ruled by the Left, West Bengal and Kerala, wanted to punish the Left. In Kerala, that was relatively easy because the Congress led UDF is a force to reckon with. Its win there is no surprise. But who would have ever imagined even in his wildest dreams that Mamata Banerjee would become the rallying point for the humiliating rout of the Left in its impregnable bastion, West Bengal?

No opinion or exit poll predicted that the Trinamool Congress would get 20 seats and the Congress six in West Bengal which sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha. No poll had foreseen that the Left would be mauled there and get just 14 seats. Overall, from 59 MPs in the previous Lok Sabha, the Left is down to just 20 now. This is as bad a fall as can be, and is the real story of this election. Yes, there are local factors that have contributed to this tight slap by the electorate. But, it is only fair to acknowledge that its arrogant and unreasonable behaviour at the Centre and its withdrawal of support to a government led by person like Dr Manmohan Singh has contributed to its unprecedented downfall from which it will find it very difficult to recover.

The BJP has suffered a defeat, but has fortuitously avoided the debacle it should have faced due to the uninspiring leadership of LK Advani. He never could match up to Dr Manmohan Singh, but did not learn that lesson despite the blunder he committed last year. That is why he mindlessly made Dr Manmohan Singh stand even taller by launching petty and bitter personal attacks on him during the elcection campaign. Fortunately for the BJP, the performance and image its Chief Ministers in Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar, where Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) is in alliance with them, saved the party from being routed. It is primarily due to them that the party has managed a face-saving tally of 118 seats against the 138 that it had last time.

I have been writing for more than a year now that in UP, the Congress must go it alone, even if it loses a few seats in the short term, as any alliance with either the SP or the BSP would only benefit those two parties and make them emerge stronger and with greater power to blackmail the Congress. A few moths back, when the Congress finally decided to go it alone, after dancing with Amar Singh for a long time, everyone was lamenting that decision saying that it would prove very costly. But I supported that decision which indicated that the Congress was finally getting serious about reviving itself in the state.

I must confess, however, that like almost everyone else, I had no clue that the revival of the Congress would become visible in these elections itself. The voting percentages are not yet known but the party has stunned everyone by getting 21/80 seats, up 11 from the paltry nine that it had got last time and within touching distance of the BSP's 22 and the SP's 23. Had the Congress got into an alliance with the SP as everyone was recommending, it would have got around 10 seats while the SP would have got more than 40 and emerged as a powerful and dangerous competitor.

Nothing exemplifies the respect of the people that Dr Manmohan Singh has earned more than the performance of the BJP in Delhi. Here, the Congress has won all seven seats. Yes, Sheila Dixit's performance as CM has been a factor. But can anyone ignore the fact that people of Delhi, where both Dr Manmohan Singh and LK Advani reside and work, have given an emphatic thumbs down to the idea of Advani taking over the top job from Manmohan? Is that also one main reason why it is the Congress and not the BJP that has performed better in neighboring states like UP, where the BJP's tally remains at 10, Haryana, where the Congress has got 9/10 and Rajasthan where its tally has shot up from four to 20/25, in both states at the expense of the BJP?

Yes, people have voted differently in various states and there is no visible overarching national factor that has led to the magnificent victory of the UPA. But, it needs to be recognised that the rout of the Left and the defeat of the BJP was firmly set in motion in July last itself when they had an avoidable and unprincipled face-off with Dr Manmohan Singh. Let us not forget that the Congress had been losing elections in state after state, barring a couple of exceptions, for the last few years. and there was nothing new done by the party to suggest that it would win the national elections. Only Dr Manmohan Singh was not a factor in any of the state elections and had virtually not campaigned in any one of them as he was not thought to be a real "leader" who could attract voters to the party.

For the Lok Sabha elections too, initially there were serious apprehensions that the Congress would surreptitiously try to place Rahul Gandhi in the Prime Minister's chair after the elections, just like Farooq Abdullah had in Kashmir by making his son Omar Abdullah the CM after the results were out. Fortunately for the Congress, Sonia Gandhi sensed the damage that this would do the party's prospects and announced that Dr Manmohan Singh was the candidate of the UPA for the top job. That declaration not only removed a lot of misgivings in people's minds but also enabled them to look closely at and compare the two main Prime Ministerial candidates.

No matter what anyone might say now about the impact that Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have made, as many will given the sycophantic culture of the Congress within the party and in sections of the media, everyone knows that the magic of Manmohan has a lot to do with the impressive score of the UPA. Had he not been projected as PM, we would have had a very different result.

The people of India have spoken loud and clear. And this time it is they who have made Singh their King. There can be no better example than this of the strength of India's democracy and secularism, despite all its ugly warts. India's much maligned voters deserve our salute.
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Readers may also read:
1. The Manmohan victory: time we got a President
2. Will the Congress do better without Sonia and Rahul?
3. Congress begins battle for revival in UP
4. Congress: from sickle to cycle
5. Nuclear Deal: Do you have it in you Mr Advani?
6. Honour your pagri Dr Manmohan Singh
7. Nuclear Deal: Singh is King