EVEN before the polling for the parliamentary election—it will be some time in the end of April or early May—one thing taken for granted is that it will be a fractured verdict. None of the political parties will get a majority in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the lower house. This will naturally necessitate a coalition government which has been the order at the Centre for the last 15 years or so.
Unlike the last election when Congress president Sonia Gandhi and BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee emerged as the main candidates for the office of Prime Minister, this time there are many hats in the ring. Since both the leading parties, the Congress and the BJP, although vociferous in their claim, have lost the sheen, the regional parties, some transcending the states in which they operate, pose a serious challenge to the two. A television network survey shows that the Congress may get 45 per cent of votes if elections are held today. Rather an optimistic picture for the party.
My hunch is that both the Congress and the BJP will have to try hard to retain their present strength. The Congress has 153 seats while the BJP 130 in the present Lok Sabha. Even the Left which has 59 members looks like losing 10 to 15 seats. Sensing disarray after the polls, the Left has begun approaching regional parties for roping them in for a third front, an arrangement which has been tried earlier but found wanting.
A motley crowd that is assembled disperses on the very first onslaught by prowlers who tempt members with money or ministries in a new government. On the other hand, the main party which sustains the front pulls the rug from beneath its feet when it is found settling down. It is possible that the Left may not have any option other than backing the Congress after the polls to stop the BJP from coming to power. However, the Communist Party’s secretary general Prakash Karat has said that in no circumstances would the Left support the Congress. He is peeved over the Manmohan Singh government’s having a nuclear treaty with the US.
The Left began the exercise on the third front by projecting Mayawati, the dalit Chief Minister of UP, as Prime Minister. (UP is the biggest state in India, with 80 Lok Sabha seats). Her waywardness made the Left change its mind. But if she were to return with even 60 seats she would definitely be a king maker if not the king.
The Congress is joining hands with her old rival, Mulayam Singh, heading the Samajwadi Party (SP). It is a Left-of-the Centre outfit which has a large following among the Muslims who constitute some 15 per cent of the electorate in UP as against 12 per cent in the country. Mulayam Singh has, however, run into a problem with the Muslims because of his alliance with Kalyan Singh who was the BJP Chief Minister when the Babri masjid was demolished. The latter has owned his moral responsibility. But this has only lessened the Muslims’ anger against the SP but not the alienation. Yet UP Muslims are Mulayam Singh forte. He cannot expect to win many seats without them. He is trying to bring them around through the ulemas. But in the meanwhile, some Muslims leaders have left him, cutting into his support.
Kalyan Singh’s defence that he wants to have revenge from the BJP, which has been its alma mater for decades, convinces only a few. One, he has left the party earlier with the same determination but has returned to its fold. Two, the demolition of the Babri masjid is too big a crime to be condoned merely by expressing moral responsibility. After all, in his affidavit to the Justice Liberan Commission, still preparing a report on the Babri masjid demolition since 1992, Kalyan Singh said that he was neither sorry nor repentant for the demolition.
The BJP faces the biggest challenge. Practically all its allies which helped the party form the government under Atal Behari Vajpayee are having second thoughts. They miss the fatherly figure of Vajpayee who would pacify them to stay with him. Also, the new vigour for the Hindutva has shaken them because they want to retain their secular credentials in line with India’s ethos. In no case do they want Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as No. 2 as the BJP is projecting.
Another worry that consumes the BJP is that the candidate it is selling for the Prime Minister’s post is 81. L.K. Advani is old and outdated in contrast to the 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi from the Congress side who wants to induct the youth in his party. It is true that Rahul Gandhi has said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is his candidate. But the debate on the old and the young has begun throughout the country, rather fiercely. A nation which has two-thirds of its population below 40 is beginning to feel the burden of old men riding it.
Whether the small parties of young people that have mushroomed in the length and breadth of India make any impact is yet to be seen. But a process has begun just like the coming together of NGOs on a platform, called Lok Rajniti Manch. All such groups want to strengthen democratic and secular base, apart from working for a welfare state.
The voters may be impressed by caste or anti-terrorist sentiments. But their attention is getting more and more focused on economic problems. They are horrified to learn from a government-sponsored study that even after 60 years of independence 77 per cent of the population earns less than $1 and some 40 million of them go to bed without food. The financial meltdown has aggravated the situation, particularly when a large number of highly-trained Indians from abroad are joining a big force of unemployed in the country. The interim budget was criticized by all sections because it did not have even a single proposal to provide jobs.
The coming polls may only throw up the questions relating to employment and poverty. The political parties may still garner support in the name of caste or creed. But the awakening of the voters to the real problems has begun. Money still matters and a Lok Sabha seat on an average demands an expenditure of Rs. 40 million. But that is because the people in South Asia are extremely poor and wallow in irrational belief, sanctified by religion and cultural attitudes.
The battle will be won not through force but through peacefully projected ideas. The pace of such a change depends on the sacrifices the civil society is willing to make. The good development is that it has begun to assert itself.