UPA's troubles begin

UPA's troubles begin

Is 1996 returning to haunt Congress? If one may hazard a guess on the fate of the Congress following the drubbing it received in the just concluded elections to five state assemblies, it is yes.

The convincing victory of the Samajwadi Party in the politically critical state of Uttar Pradesh, and the history created by the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine by retaining power in Punjab against all forecasts, will surely remind the Congress of the post-P V Narasimha Rao period which brought the regional forces to the fore at the Centre.

The huge trust deficit of the voters in the Congress was discovered in this round of elections – the party lost UP where its star campaigner Rahul Gandhi invested so much time and money; it failed to convert anti-incumbency into votes in Punjab and Uttarakhand where it could have won convincingly; and its rout in Goa was expected. Its only win in Manipur was hardly a consolation.

The overall devastating result could signal the beginning of turbulent times for the Congress as well as the United Progressive Alliance government it leads at the Centre. The Congress had placed high stakes on the elections: it wanted succour to a beleaguered Manmohan Singh government, battered by scams and pressurised from within by belligerent allies like Trinamool Congress, causing important Bills to languish in Parliament and key proposals to gather dust.

A morale booster from the just over polls would have empowered the government to push through the pending Bills and its unfinished economic reforms agenda. The prime minister was keen to get some big-ticket reforms going in sectors like taxation, disinvestment, power and mining. But it never came through. Consequently, expect no major reforms, lest the aggressive allies and assertive regional satraps force a downfall.

For those who were expecting that Manmohan Singh would make way for the Gandhi scion, it will not happen now. Singh will last until parliament elections are called.
As for the increasingly assertive regional forces, the gain at the Centre could be at the cost of two national parties - Congress and BJP - who fared badly at the hustings. They will do their best to occupy not just the Opposition space for the remaining tenure of the Lok Sabha but also attempt to usurp power through a conglomeration in the coming Parliamentary election - which could be in 2014 as scheduled or earlier. The victory of SP and SAD may have bolstered the mood in the regional camp.

The chief ministers, especially the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and J Jayalalitha, have demonstrated in the recent past that they can come together and bend the Central government on the issue of federalism.

With the UP elections marginalising both the national players, it will only boost the regional parties to collectively take on the Centre. And they may resist reforms, particularly those that have even the slightest bearing on the powers of states, more vigorously than before. They will be equally pushy to extract concessions from a weak Centre.

As for the BJP, it can relax over the fate of the Congress but the party will be terribly worried over its performance in the five states. It got less number of seats than in 2007 in UP, Punjab and clung on in Uttarakhand. Unless the party gets around 180 seats out of 543 in the LS polls, it becomes impossible for it to be the rallying force for government formation. The label of being an irrelevant party in UP may have already put paid to BJP’s ambitions post 2014-polls and ceded this position to regional parties. The major Opposition party is already reduced to playing a second fiddle to UPA ally Trinamool Congress when it opposed the Lokpal Bill as well as FDI in multi-brand retail, and to Gandhian Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign.

Undoubtedly, Congress was the biggest loser of the February-March elections. One glance at how Congress had fared in the 2009 LS polls in these states would suffice to understand the hard knock that the grand old party has suffered this time round: it won a surprising 21 seats of 80 in UP, eight of 13 in Punjab, all five in Uttarakhand, one of two in Goa and both seats in Manipur (total of 42 out of 102 seats). In the just over Assembly elections, it won 157 out of a total 690 seats in these five states. Hardly an impressive performance with just two years to go for fresh LS elections. The party was hoping to do well in these elections, especially in UP, treating it as the semi-finals before the 2014 final bout. The rout has made it harder for the party to fight the Assembly polls due in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in December, and in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh,  Rajasthan and Delhi in 2013.

Thus, the party cannot waste time in having its strategy in place for the coming polls. Rahul will certainly lead the party again but with a reduced brand value. However, repeated setbacks – remember only four seats out of 243 in Bihar in 2010 Assembly polls? – may mean irreparable damage. The party has to realise that charisma of the party’s first family alone is not sufficient to win votes; developing local leadership and local moorings are equally important.

Prez polls

The immediate task before the Congress though is the coming presidential and vice presidential elections in July-August. The assembly poll results have vastly reduced the bargaining power of the Congress, which along with its allies commands 40 per cent of the votes. The party will be forced to either settle for compromise candidates after talks with BJP and other parties and CMs or face elections to the two coveted posts.

However, the Congress can heave a sigh of relief on one issue: the murmurs of a mid-term poll to the LS are unlikely to become a reality at least in the immediate future. For, both allies and opponents alike may not be in favour of a snap poll. Even if Trinamool were to walk out of UPA, BSP supremo Mayawati with her 22 MPs may bail the government out as she may not want elections soon. Even SP may not be willing for early elections, aware that its Muslim voters may not want change of government for fear of a BJP-led government coming to power at the Centre. Mulayam himself may not have forgotten that it was the BJP which came to power after he stepped down as UP CM in 1991!

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