POLITICAL parties in India have proved beyond doubt in this Lok Sabha election that their primary objective has been to attain power. They have adopted the most unbecoming methods to try to increase their number without any sense of guilt. They pushed out issues and replaced them with personal attacks and whatever else suited. The polity has remained fragmented as the idea of India has become more distant.
The ruling Congress has been the biggest sinner. It has stopped at nothing to try to be victorious. It has had no compunction in using criminals, communalists and casteists for garnering votes. Money and liquor was no taboo for them like other political parties. Some 12 per cent of the Congress candidates are charge-sheeters and many crorepatis (millionaires). The assets the party nominees have declared average Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) per candidate.
The Congress has seen to it that Octavio Quetterechi, an Italian and known to be close to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, is off the list of those who received payoffs for buying Bofors guns from Sweden. The CBI, a department under the Prime Minister’s office, has withdrawn the “wanted” notice from Interpol. This move has besmeared the face of the Congress still more.
The party’s claim to be secular does not wash because it has not implemented even one recommendation of the government-appointed Sachar Committee report which pointed out last year that the plight of Muslims was worse than that of dalits, untouchables. The BJP’s attack that the Congress uses Muslims as the vote bank, without doing anything concrete for them, is justified. Indeed, the party brings secularism to the fore only during the polls and forgets it after coming to power.
Backwardness of Muslims is a sad commentary on the Congress which has been in power at the centre and in most states for more than 50 years since independence. Yet the Muslims do not seem to have many options. They cannot vote for the BJP which is out and out Hindu. Nor do they have much confidence in regional parties which are getting too parochial and too imbedded in caste and local problems.
However, the community may still vote for two or three main regional parties which are said to be emerging as the king maker. With the Congress and the BJP, teetering at somewhere about 150 seats each, the regional parties become important because they would provide some 75 members to enable any party or a combination to reach the magic figure of 272 in the house of 543. If the two fail to cross the 300 mark together, the regional parties may bid for power. That means roping in either the Congress or the BJP. Where will UP chief minister Mayawati fit in this scheme of things is difficult to say.
Muslims constitute 15 per cent of some 700 million voters and can make a difference at least in 200 seats. But its earlier tendency to vote for a winnable candidate against the BJP has got dissipated. There are several secular parties claiming the community’s vote. Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party in UP and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar has been getting most of Muslim vote. But both have expressed their unhappiness over the community becoming lukewarm towards them.
Muslims look like moving towards the Congress which was their first choice till 15 years ago. Sensing this, the party has gone it alone in UP and Bihar even though it has destroyed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which gave it a majority. The party has jettisoned Mulayam Singh who helped the Manmohan Singh government survive the vote of confidence some six months ago. Similarly, Lalu Prasad who has stood by the Congress has been told that he may not be included in the cabinet if the Congress comes back. One thing the party has proved: Fidelity thy name is Congress.
Again, it is the Congress which made it difficult for the communists to continue in the UPA. The nuclear treaty with the US was crucial for both—for one, it meant nearly the membership of the nuclear club and, for the other, it indicated New Delhi’s strategic alliance with Washington. The communists have founded the third front. But it is tragic that their present strength of 62 may go down to 45 when they need the numbers most.
The communists have shown their anger against the Congress by declaring that they would not mind the BJP coming to power even if their support could help the Congress form the government. It is difficult to imagine such a situation because the communists’ biggest enemy is the BJP. Angry Prakash Karat, secretary-general of the Marxist Communists, may come to realise that letting the BJP to cobble a ruling combination will turn out to be yet another “historical blunder.”
In comparison, the BJP has nurtured its allies well. Except Orissa’s Biju Janta Dal which left the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on its own, the rest of constituents have stayed with it. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is a difficult customer. He can join hands with the Congress if it means tasting power at the centre. The NDA has added one more ally, the Asom Gana Parishad, which is not large, but it shows how keen the BJP is to have the maximum outside support since every member will count in what looks like the closest contest since independence.
The BJP is conscious that L.K. Advani, 80 years old does not appeal to the youth since as many as 23 million are such voters. Rahul Gandhi, 38, sells better. But his stock has not yet risen so high that he can be chosen prime minister despite the efforts of his mother, Congress president Sonia. His press conference can spell out the party’s strategy but not bring votes. If the Congress wins Manmohan Singh would be the Prime Minister and could withdraw in favour of Rahul Gandhi later.
Yet the main challenge which Indian political parties will face after elections is how to accommodate the nation’s diversities in the political structure. Problems have been left unsolved for years. The National Integration Council cannot bring about the emotional unity. The issue continues to be how to string together the local and regional forces for the central idea of India.
A federal structure can only tie up loose threads. New Delhi has to decentralise power. Troubles in Pakistan began to increase when the authority came to be concentrated at Islamabad. The breakaway of Bangladesh was the natural fallout. New Delhi cannot stay smug or suppress aspirations that different regions represent. It has to make them feel that their entity means a lot.