January 15, 2009 11:17:12 pm
The epitaphs that were written on the Congresss tombstone in 1989-1991 as a result of politics hurtling down the Mandal zone also announced Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad as the ultimate victors. With UP and Bihar,what was then 149 Lok Sabha seats melted out of the Congresss firm grasp within the space of just two years. Between 1989 and 1991,the Congress collapsed like a house of cards in UP,from 31.8 per cent of the votes in the 1989 parliamentary elections,it was down to 18.3 per cent in 1991 (it currently is a little under 9 per cent,as per the assembly polls of 2007). Bihar too saw a similar story play out.
Contrast those moments with now. The Congress is on a visible high. A high symbolised most intriguingly by the complete turnaround in its relationship with the Yadav leaders 18 years ago. Lalu Prasad,someone who would not yield more than 4 seats to the Congress during pre-poll discussions,is now the mother partys most trusted ally; and the Samajwadi Party is engaged in what is,howsoever tortuous,a seat-sharing alliance.
Much has been written about the vitriol between the SP and the Congress in the first four and a half years of the UPA; references to the Congress party as Mallika Victoria,and other uncharitable phrases will need to be dusted out of the history books. For now,an alliance with the grand old party our very own GOP for the Yadav Socialists of North India seems near-essential if their survival in the medium term is to be negotiated.
In UP,the champions of OBC essentially Yadav rights along with those of Muslims (fed up with the Congress equivocation on what secularism meant,and with the storm over Ayodhya) found themselves trumped by a Dalit leader who seemed to have fired categories not factored in by the SP. In Bihar too,it was a similar,though more complex story. The OBC-Muslim (MY) coalition there,harder to draw apart than UPs,lost out to an imaginative and politically risky coalition attempted by Lalus former associate,Nitish Kumar. Despite an alliance with the BJP,which meant a difficult road,Nitish Kumar rode it out imaginatively,resurrecting the Most backward category,further deepening and then using the demand for empowerment from the very oppressed as a tool to undercut Lalus fief.
So,18 years after the OBC-led parties toppled the Congresss throne and eroded their party structures,you have this delightful irony: of the return of the party with the slogan of taking everyone along,the big old umbrella emerging as an interesting,if not the most significant,player.
Some would say its the age-old ruling party promise of offering protection to parties or leaders of parties being haunted by the spectre of criminal cases,allegations and court matters that has done the trick. And (as most recently witnessed in the case of Shibu Sorens loss) with the comfort of small but powerful power bases being eroded,refuge can conveniently be sought by victims of that erosion in parties with larger ideas,bases and slogans that go beyond immediate local compulsions.
Interestingly,the South has seen this before. While the first elections in Tamil Nadu saw the Congress obtain 41.7 per cent in 1967 (the first year as the state of Tamil Nadu),the percentage tapered down to about 8 per cent. However,with the fractured mandate and vote share split far beyond what the DMK and the ADMK can control any more,the Congress vote share and imprimatur has proved very useful for whichever party to secure an important lead.
To a large extent,this is also about the growth of the Congress as the leader of coalitions. Roundly criticised for bumbling over the Kashmir coalition with the PDP,which took months to come into being; and for the mess before the Karnataka state elections last year,which saw dozens of unsuccessful meetings with JD-S leaders; and then the bitter parting with the Left,the Congress appears keen to fix its image as a party that knows its coalition karma. As the latest quick decision on sowing up the Jammu and Kashmir government would indicate a decision taken without squabbling about a semester approach to chief ministership it is keen to convey the image that it is playing for bigger stakes and a reliable leader of alliances.
At the moment,the BJP already struggling to find a slogan or at least a metaphor to counter the Congresss youth and 3G hype seems at a standstill. Its senior leaders are still jockeying for position,its president is still not at ease with its PM-aspirant. In fact,it looks as undecided and shapeless as the Congress appeared five years ago. But then,just as it isnt over till the fat lady sings in politics,in North India it isnt over till the rather lean Ajit Singh decides. For anyone who knows his UP,forget the pollsters he is the singer to watch.
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