Last week in Lucknow, on the 103rd birth anniversary of Socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia, Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, caused a huge ripple. He defined BJP leader and his former bete noir LK Advani as an `honest leader’ and a man of principles. His comments came two days after cousin and SP Rajya Sabha MP Ram Gopal Yadav had certified the NDA to be better managers of coalition politics than the UPA.
So is Mulayam moving closer to the BJP? Consider the Yadav chieftain's position: Here is a man who built his politics in the dusty bowls of UP on a stridently anti-BJP platform, opposing its Ramjanmabhoomi politics like no other political party did two decades ago. Mulayam’s robust opposition to the demolition of the Babri Masjid through 1990-91, when large swathes of UP were under a saffron siege, earned him the goodwill of the state’s sizable Muslim community – a goodwill that continues till date and best exemplified in the 2012 assembly elections rout of his arch rival Mayawati and the decimation of national parties. His association with BJP leader Kalyan Singh during the 2004 General Elections had proved costly when the Muslim vote bank had deserted him in large numbers, bringing down the SP tally to 14. So did it make sense now to build bridges with Advani, a man Mulayam wanted arrested when the BJP stalwart rode triumphantly on his contentious rath yatra in 1990?
Yet, there is a method in this madness. Mulayam’s recent utterances are potent enough signs that he now wants to get away from the UPA as soon as possible. The idea to throw off the Congress yoke was always a yearning for him; the momentum towards doing that has been provided by the DMK which decided to walk out on the Congress during its toughest hour.
That regional parties are buoyant about their prospects for the 2014 General Elections is more than clear. If they could have their way, they would hold the polls today. National parties are, however, more circumspect about the polls, best illustrated in repeated Congress assertions, first by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and later Finance Minister P Chidambaram, that UPA 2 will last out its full term and that polls will be held not before they are due.
Union Minister Kapil Sibal drove home that point when he told reporters this week, “what is their (regional parties’) hurry to hold elections and come to power. Dilli abhi door ast (Delhi is a long way away). They may think they hold the aces, but we know better.’’
What then is the burst of adrenalin currently experienced by regional parties – the JD (U) in Bihar, DMK in Tamil Nadu, SP in UP, Trinamool in West Bengal and NCP in Maharashtra - of going it alone. It is not that they are under any optical illusion of forming the next government on their own strength; they simply do not have the numbers. But they are quite willing, at the moment, to break the rules of the game and emerge, if possible, as major players in any future alliance. If it means tampering with sensitive issues like pre and post-poll alliances, which the two national parties are understandably not too keen to probe at the moment, then be it so.
SP's Ram Gopal Yadav told TSI, “Results of the next elections will be a shocker and in such a situation the SP will have an important role to play. There can be no secular government in place without us. We will get the numbers in UP which will make it impossible to ignore us.’’
Why are the regional parties pumped up? A closer look will reveal that their optimism is based entirely on caste considerations, startling chutzpah and rank opportunism. Mulayam’s charge that the Congress is doing nothing for the minorities except lip service is aimed at underlining the SP control over the 19 percent minority vote bank, something which came good for them in the 2012 UP assembly elections. Will the trend repeat itself in a general election remains the big question, giving way to the current jockeying for positions.
While supporting the UPA government at the centre for the last nine years, the SP is basically an anti-Congress, anti-BJP formation. Which is why their leaders constantly maintain that post 2014 elections, a Third Front opposed to both the national parties, will come into being. Even so, the SP supremo has not thought it fit to part ways with the Congress; Yadav has praised Advani and is talking to Left leaders, as well as liaise with Sharad Pawar and NCP, all in a day’s work.
The SP has already declared the names of 66 party candidates for the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP. SP national secretary Rajesh Chaturvedi told this magazine that the party is trying for a three-fold increase in its vote share. Ambitious, but the SP is quite prepared to gird up its loins for the battle ahead.
In these difficult times for the Congress, the way in which the BSP has stood by it, suggests that party supremo Mayawati may now ask for a quid pro quo for its unstinting support. Winner of 21 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP can count wholly on its Dalit vote bank but most observers believe that the party is more inclined towards state politics rather than the centre. Party insiders believe that while relations are sound with the Congress, the BSP favours equal distance with both the SP and BJP.
Mayawati’s recent meeting with Sharad Pawar is just a delicate hint that she would be willing to support a ‘secular’ regional parties-backed formation at the centre. Says a BSP leader, who does not want to be quoted ,“Behenji (Mayawati) is playing her cards close to her chest. She will reveal it when the time comes. Once the Modi dust settles down and every political player has had his or her say, then she will come out. Her lack of access to the media means that her political moves are largely under cover. That does not make her any less of a player.’’
Political movers in the capital suggest that Sharad Pawar too fancies his chances as Prime Minister and is in the midst of some hectic deal making. In these last nine years, he has managed to establish the NCP as a serious player capable of holding his own in the company of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and other Congress stalwarts. In addition, Pawar has sewn up an alliance with Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan to take on Nitish and with ‘smaller brother’ Mulayam in UP; he has personal equations with K Karunanidhi and Chandra Babu Naidu and even Naidu’s archrival Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.
Says NCP leader and Union Minister Praful Patel: “Sharad Pawar is the right man to lead the next government. He has the desired experience and credibility. He will be most acceptable to all allies. ’’
Pawar has good equations with regional leaders and his age, seniority and moderate image will make him an acceptable candidate for many contestants. That certainly cannot be said about a number of other players currently active on the electoral chess board.
In what is becoming a demonic race to secure vote banks and alliances cutting across the regional divide, no one is taking any chances. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar is using the development card to deadly affect in combination with his Kurmi, Most Backward Caste (MBC) and Muslim vote bank. The main reason for his antipathy to BJP’s star campaigner Narendra Modi is rooted in his quest for the significant 15 percent minority vote bank in Bihar. That, Nitish believes, will give him the leverage required to make a difference at the centre when the times comes.
Observers believe that a man of Nitish’s political savvy has trained his guns on a special status for Bihar mainly for political reasons. While there can be no doubt that the state needs financial assistance, an upgraded status for Bihar could end up including other Bimaru states as well under that specific category. In political terms, it would mean additional clout for Nitish, who too has his eyes trained on potential allies from the Hindi belt to bolster his claims for the top job. Understandably therefore, he has so far refrained from making any commitment and is in no tearing hurry to show his hand.
Armed with the best CM status, Nitish’s domination of JD(U) is so complete that even party president Sharad Yadav has been reduced to being a mere bystander. The Bihar Chief Minister has even put question marks against Sharad Yadav’s chairmanship of the NDA. He is reportedly keen to invite Sonia and Manmohan to inaugurate a number of development projects in the state and has virtually declined to let LK Advani do the honours, despite Yadav's best efforts. Predicts Sharad Yadav, a trifle blandly, “the economic policies of the UPA government will force voters into our camp.’’
It is not as if Laloo Yadav is not drawing big crowds at his public meetings but it is his inability turn this audience into a vote bank, which is pulling the RJD strongman down. By now both he and Ram Vilas Paswan have realised that it will be difficult to push Nitish around because his development slogan has pushed the caste-based equations of the RJD and Paswan out of the window. So what best except to team up with an outside ally like Sharad Pawar to check out if any of the old Congress muscle in Bihar could be rejuvenated.
Even though Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh has announced that the party will declare the names of its candidates a year in advance, insiders who know say that all decisions in the party will be taken at the last minute. At the moment, India's oldest party is gearing up its poll strategy, determined to take on Narendra Modi or who ever comes in its quest for a third consecutive term.
A high-level Rahul Gandhi-led Congress team (or a war room) which includes Jairam Ramesh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Salman Khurshid, Digvijay Singh and three dozen small and middling leaders, have been co opted for this exercise. While UP, as can be expected, is its top priority, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Karnataka are its tier-two preferences. In these states, reports by observers who were sent there three months ago, are currently on the discussion table.
The war group is feverishly charting out a list of its pre-poll allies, an exercise which has slowed down in the recent months, thanks to the ongoing discord between the Congress and its UPA allies. Party sources, however, indicated that Rahul Gandhi has told the party leaders that they are not amenable to any potential blackmail – alliances will have to include a liberal give and take and will necessarily have to keep the senior partner's interests in consideration.
As for the NDA, it is not what it used to be in the salad days of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Except the JD (U), it can count on the unstinting support of the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal, TDP in Andhra Pradesh and a host of fringe players. It may look a disjointed front for the moment but its regional supporters believe they will be make substantial gains in their respective states to eventually make a significant difference. The recent rejig in the BJP in which Narendra Modi has virtually forced his agenda upon party president Rajnath Singh at the exclusion of LK Advani, has taken many by surprise. By giving a large chunk of the electoral work to Modi, it is clear that Rajnath has the blessings of the RSS.
BJP leader Ravishankar Prasad believes that his party is going to double its seats in the crucial Hindi heartland. ``If the Congress continues to function the way they have, no one can stop the NDA from coming into power,’’ he told TSI.
The Left Front, still scarred after its electoral rout in West Bengal at the hands of Mamata Bannerjee, is learning fast. To include non-Left unions and associations in its moderately successful Bharat Bandh recently has come as a shot in the arm. They believe that from its current Lok Sabha strength of 16, the Left Front will only go up. Points out CPI leader Gurudas Das Gupta, “It is important to remember here that while the Left withdrawal of support to the UPA was a knockout punch, Mamata’s withdrawal has not made much difference to the fortunes of the UPA. The Left Front will play an important role in setting up a new government in 2014.’’
In Tamil Nadu, positioning for being at the right place at the right time is underway with both the DMK and AIADMK assessing their options. J Jayalalitha’s reported move to rope in actor-turned DMDK chief Vijaykanth is being looked at with some trepidation by the DMK. Her own stand vis a vis the national parties remains clear though. She has joined the BJP in demanding the scalp of Finance Minister P Chidambaram for his role in the 2G scam and there is little doubt that she will support either a BJP-led government or even a Third Front when it comes down to making a government.
The positions of Mamata Banerjee and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik too are clear: they are willing to back a ‘secular’ coalition but will be happy to continue with the current arrangement of providing outside support to a central government as long as their main demands are considered sympathetically.
While it is difficult to say who will form the next government in Delhi, an informal poll campaign is already underway, what with the media latching onto every byte, nuance and keener than even the regional satraps, to pronounce a verdict. In the weeks ahead, the campaign will only get more frenzied, frantic, desperate –
Holding the cross
NDA convenor and JD (U) MP Sharad Yadav has a tough balancing act ahead. At a time when old partners are seeking new allies, anything can happen. Excerpts from an interview.
There is a lot of speculation about who will go with whom. There is talk that Congress is wooing the JD (U).
There is no chance of a JD (U) alliance with the Congress, now or after the polls. It is all in the realm of speculation.
With Narendra Modi set to become the face of the BJP campaign, is it likely to trigger off a fresh set of political realignments in the country? What does it mean for the NDA?
The NDA will decide its prime ministerial candidate following discussion and consultation among the allies in due course of time ahead of the next general elections. That is our style, it is based on consensus.
But Modi’s style of functioning has been termed as undemocratic and divisive?
Look, that is an internal matter of the BJP.
Is the mood in the country anti-Congress?
The economic policies of the UPA government has thrown voters in our lap. It is due to the UPA-2's mismanagement that no big investment had come to India in the industrial sector or even in multi-brand retail which the ruling coalition has sought to harp on as a booster to economic growth. But I can tell you that it is not going to work.
The NDA, such as it stands today, has lost most of its allies. How do you hope to consolidate your alliance?
We have our old allies and you will see that once results start coming in, so will our allies.