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Shreekant Sambrani: Cry, the benighted country!

Are we headed for two extra-constitutional, autocratic power centres for the price of one govt?

Shreekant Sambrani  |  New Delhi 

Are we headed for two extra-constitutional, autocratic power centres for the price of one government.

Barely days to go before the election, and neither the ever-closer terror dragon, nor the unfolding of the economic inferno seem to have set the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Narmada or the Kaveri on fire. We get the distinct impression that the aging leaders of the tired old national parties with their coalitions coming apart rapidly — or the myriad leaders of the ragtag groupings of what pass for regional parties — are none too keen on the outcome and merely going through the motions of a campaign. Even Varun Gandhi does not cause enough of a stir!

No wonder then that the hardy staple of the election season entertainment, the polls, are conspicuous by their absence. A landslide or a close finish is exciting to predict, but a hopelessly hung verdict is as boring as a pointless draw of a test match, our other reigning passion. Nevertheless, it is worth every thinking person’s fifteen seconds of attention to ponder what the likely results foretell about our polity.

The accompanying table is the result of my state-by-state guess work, based on purely impressionistic analysis through my travels and readings (disregarding scrupulously what the electronic media says) over the last several months. I had predicted in these the results of the Gujarat and Karnataka assembly elections using a similar approach, not only in terms of the ultimate winner, but also the size of the victory. An unpublished analysis of the more recent Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections was also similarly accurate. This is not to stake a claim for being a psephologist, but simply to show a consistent track record. For the record, I must state that I am not a partisan of any political formation whatsoever.

This exercise was done on March 10 and shared with some friends. The only change I have made since then is to move the Samajwadi Party seats out of the UPA column to others and some attendant minor adjustments. The RJD/LJP seats in Bihar have been left in the UPA tally, as the leaders of these parties have said that they will back the Congress after the elections.

Changes from one column to another, especially between the Congress and the BJP, would be possible and by and large in the plus/minus 1/2 range for each state and should even out. For the Congress to come ahead, though, almost all of these would have to be plus Congress and minus BJP, which seems a little less likely. (Click here for table General Elections 2009)

As with all others writing on the subject, I see no combination crossing the magic number of 273 seats, which is no surprise at all. Where my analysis differs from others is that while I see the BJP at the same number as in 2004 (138), I see a decline in the Congress strength to around 120, whereas the consensus figure is around 150. There are several reasons for this.

First, while neither major party has a lock on any of the 40-plus seat states any longer — or even a sizeable (meaning number 1 or number 2) presence in them except the Congress in AP — there is a core BJP vote in certain larger states (eg Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka — a more recent phenomenon), and even in some of the smaller ones (HP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and possibly urban Punjab and parts of Orissa). This is the committed Hindu vote, with or without Modi and not swayed by personalities and current event appeals. It gives the BJP its core strength of 80-100 seats in the Lok Sabha. By contrast, the Congress, which had a similar base once, seems to have lost it some time ago. Its relatively secure seats in Maharashtra, Andhra, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka are all now under attack from allies or enemies and can no longer be taken for granted, although they could be good for 50-plus seats. This base could be eroded by influences of personalities and current happenings.

Third, the talk of the BJP losing its way, being leaderless, lost in factionalism, the Congress basking in the afterglow of five years in government led by a decent man, etc are all a mirror image of what appeared five years ago. We know what happened then.

This picture leaves the President, the Congress apparatchik handpicked for just such an eventuality, in a quandary: precedent demands that she call the largest single party first, which in this case would be the BJP. The opportunist seats from the “Allies” and “Others” (except the Left) would then gravitate towards the BJP. If the Congress is in the pole position, it would attract these same birds of passage, and possibly even the Left. The President might throw the precedent out of the window and call the head of the largest pre-poll alliance first. Depending on how this is interpreted, it could be either! Or she might just wait until someone comes up with a list of all the “bought” horses adding up to the magic number of 273.

Arun Nehru says that whoever gets the support of a majority of the 120 seats from UP and Bihar will be in power, which political assessment should be acceptable. By every account, Mayawati will get 35-plus seats from UP. That leaves only 85 seats for the others. No single party or combination will get 60 of these. It is also unlikely that the RJD/LJP/SP combo and the Congress would get 60 seats between them, because that would leave the JD(U)/BJP and RLD/BJP 25 seats or less in the two states. This would become even more difficult if Mayawati crosses 40 seats in UP, which is more likely than any other possibility giving any other formation(s) 60 seats.

Therefore, the only way anyone could command the support of the majority of UP/Bihar MPs is if Mayawati goes with them. This is even more worrisome than the prospect of her becoming the Prime Minister, because in this very likely and probable scenario, she will enjoy immense power including veto on most crucial aspects without any responsibility or answerability, surpassing Sonia Gandhi’s position between 2004 and 2009.

This is likely to be further worsened by the imminent prospect of the same combination having to woo the Empress of Poes Garden as well. Two extra-constitutional and entirely autocratic power centres for the price of one (barely worth the name) government!

Should we cry for our benighted country?

First Published: Wed, April 08 2009. 00:45 IST