Monday, March 2, 2009

News from the States

The dates for the general elections have been announced, and the country is gearing up for a hectic and no doubt eventful six week long campaign period. Already, parties have begun jostling for the early lead. Here is a round up of the highlights from some states, and what I feel their implications will be:

1) Uttar Pradesh:

We begin with the state I have repeatedly called the most interesting state in Indian politics, UP. Not much has changed since I last wrote about the state, but Ajit Singh and his Rashtriya Lok Dal have formally joined the NDA. This is good news for the BJP in the state-they need every ally they can get, and the the RLD is guaranteed to return 3-4 MP's from the sugar belt of western UP. Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP is still working out a deal with the Congress- after initially insisting that they will allow the Congress to contest only two seats, Rae Bareilly and Amethi, they seem to be moderating their position. Yet, political brinksmanship continues to be played, and this is no surprise-the SP is flirting alternatively with the BJP and a potential 'fourth front', composed of dissenters from the UPA and the NDA. Of course, it is unlikely that either of these alliances will materialise-the SP will ultimately tie up with the Congress-but this brinksmanship is characterstic of UP politics and what makes it such a fluid space. I still do believe that the SP-Congress tie up is a mistake on Mulayam's part, and I would go so far as to say that the BJP-RLD combine will push the SP-Cong alliance fairly close for second spot in the state. First spot of course belongs to Mayawati-her slogan 'UP hui hamari, ab Dilli ki bari' is evidence of her brimming confidence and is certainly far more inspiring than the yet-finalised BJP proposal 'This country deserves better'. Who in the BJP is in charge of these things? Can't you do any better? What happened to the days of 'Agli bari Atal Behari'?

2) West Bengal

Long thought to be an impenetrable bastion of the Left, West Bengal will play a crucial role in these elections. A resurgent Mamata Banerjee will exploit the growing disenchantment with the Left to the full. Having already gained ground on the Singur issue, Mamata has struck an alliance with her old foe, the Congress. This is a great deal for Mamata-it will allow her to direct her focus against only the Left and not against 'CPM-B' as she once descriped the Congress. However contrary to popular opinion, I do not think it is a great deal for the Congress. Let's look at the math. For much of the current Lok Sabha, the Congress had the support of 41 out of 42 MP's from Bengal, including 35 from the Left Front. Although currently on bad terms, it is clear that the UPA if it wants to come back to power will probably need the support of the Left. However by consolidating the Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, the Congress will ensure that the Left loses more ground than was otherwise possible. The Congress is probably hoping that their alliance with Mamata will give them a majority of the seats in West Bengal and free them from the grip of the Left. However this is wishful thinking. What is more likely to happen is that the Trinamool, and to a lesser extent the Congress, will get more seats, but the Left will not fall below 20 seats. Now since the Left will not join a government supported by the Trinamool, and vice versa, the Congress will find itself in a position where instead of having the support of 35, let alone 41, MP's from Bengal, it will have the support of 25-30. Just to clarify with some predictions: if things go really badly for the Left, they will get 20 seats, the Congress will get 10 and the Trinamool 12. This will leave the Congress with 2 choices- dump the Trinamool and embrace an angry Left and thus earn the support of 3o MP's. Or stick with the Trinamool and recieve support from 22 MP's. Either way, they are going to lose seats in Bengal, and will have to figure out where they are going make these up from.

3) Maharashtra

Politics in Maharashtra is becoming increasingly murky. The Shiv Sena is flirting with the NCP, the NCP is threatening the Congress, the Congress is playing hardball and the MNS is wrecking general havoc with the best laid plans of the four big parties. To clarify: the Shiv Sena, facing political oblivion due to the success of the MNS, is looking to recapture the Maratha votebank and enter some sort of understanding with the NCP. This is unlikely to materalise, mostly because such an alliance will harm Sharad Pawar's national prospects. The Shiv Sena will thus probably remain within the NDA, though this could change. Meanwhile, the Congress is refusing to enter into a pre-poll understanding with the NCP, and this is straining relations with Pawar's party. Why the Congress is doing this, I do not know-perhaps there is some information on the ground that has not reached the shores of Long Island Sound. With the information I have however, this lack of a pre-poll understanding makes no sense and is a hangover of the days of Congress hegemony. Why doesn't the Congress realize that it can't go the distance alone any more! The party to watch out for is the MNS. A new party led by a charismatic young man and specialising in a unique kind of divisive politics, it is unclear whether the MNS will actually win a seat. What is likely is that they will eat into the votebanks of the BJP and the Shiv Sena and perhaps even the NCP, and thus provide some much needed succor to the Congress, who otherwise face an uphill battle to retain the seats they have.

4) Tamil Nadu

A few months ago, it was expected that Jayalalithaa's AIADMK would sweep the Tamil Nadu polls, but the action of the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka resulted in things looking a little different today. The DMK and its alliance partners have politicized the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and are appealing to voters on the grounds of their Tamil identity. In doing this, politicians like Vaiko are showing an immense amount of immaturity-by blindly supporting the LTTE, they justify the actions of the LTTE, including the use of Tamil civilians as human shields. Instead of pushing the Indian government to take a reasonable, yet pro-Tamil, stand on the Sri Lanka issue, parties like the MDMK and PMK are outdoing each other in taking a militantly pro-tiger line on the issue. Whether this will translate into votes or not remians to be seen, but I do think that the AIADMK will settle at around 30/40 seats (counting Pondicherry) if things go as they are. Ultimately, I do not think voters will be swayed by appeals to identity politics, especially if they feel that the DMK led government as failed to deliver on key issues. This once again is a bad omen for the Congress. The AIADMK is hardly a reliable alliance partner for anyone, but is more likely to ally itself with the NDA than with the UPA. Jayalalithaa has no problems with the BJP's Hindutva philosophy, and will support them if offered a suitable 'reward'. Tamil Nadu has played a key role in deciding who forms the government in Delhi in the past, and this trend looks set to continue.