1) Government Is Stable, But Post-Vajpayee Calculations Have Begun
Developments since the 1999 parliamentary elections show an absence of clear political trends, with almost every political entity, big or small, losing ground somewhere and gaining elsewhere. For instance:
But even assuming that his health is failing, signals across the board do not support the chances of Vajpayee stepping down from office any time soon. Despite his poet-like aloofness on occasion Vajpayee himself is very keen to see through some of his diplomatic and economic initiatives of recent months, and he is unlikely to yield power in circumstances which are politically so propitious for him. What is perhaps more likely is that Vajpayee will gradually decrease his own work load and his key lieutenants (such as Jaswant Singh, Brajesh Mishra and Yashwant Sinha) will increasingly become more independent and powerful in pursing a broad Vajpayee vision in key portfolios such as External Affairs and Finance. Even Vajpayees political detractors are not ready to rock the boat at this time or to face the uncertainty of a new political crisis, and given the cross-currents in Indian politics leaders of most opposition parties are unsure of their strength at the local level. Consequently, they will continue to attack the BJP on any issue they can raise but privately prefer Vajpayee to continue as PM till elections are held next year in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
Having said that, there is also growing posturing in anticipation of a post-Vajpayee era. There is increasing effort all around to win larger acceptability and friends, and senior politicians from across the spectrum have intensified their confabulations with each other. Four previous Prime Ministers have gotten together in an effort to revive the Third Front option, and even though none of these four leaders has much political muscle any more the very fact that they are trying to carve a role for themselves is in itself indicative of an inflexion point in Indian politics. Things may be calm on the surface, but re-combinations and new alliances are quietly being discussed in Delhis political quarters.
This situation is leading to some unusual stances and statements. It explains why Home Minister LK Advani has publicly muted his pro-Hindu line and has even shown sympathy with Muslims for being out of the Indian mainstream, why Murli Manohar Joshi (another BJP hard-liner) has openly supported BJPs allies in their right to protest against subsidy cuts, and why Madanlal Khurana (an erratic politician who only last year had spoken out against RSS influence) has now done a double flip and is now parroting the RSS view by criticizing trade and telecom liberalization. The need to win a larger circle of allies is perhaps most urgently felt by BJP leaders who realize that they must carry along both the hard-line RSS as well as moderate NDA allies in order to play a central role in any post-Vajpayee order. But it also true of other parties. This explains why Samata (an avowedly socialist party and once vitriolically opposed to the RSS) is the only major NDA partner of the BJP who has not publicly opposed subsidy cuts and has lent its support to the RSS on the membership controversy, why the TDP (the unchallenged cheerleader of reforms) has been the most persistent in asking for a roll-back of subsidy cuts, and why some senior Congress leaders are now saying that "..the BJP is not an untouchable."
Many of these poses are clealry designed to build new constituencies or test possible new alliances. This mix of playing to the gallery and back-room parleys will continue but not pose a serious problem as long as Vajpayee enjoys his current popularity and as long as his health, even if deteriorating, allows him to intercede occasionally on the more important issues of the day. Even if the BJP does poorly in Uttar Pradesh elections, which looks likely, we do not expect a regime change or a serious political crisis for another 12 months. But next years crucial state elections (irrespective of who wins or loses) will probably trigger an end to the current political calm in the country.
2) Party Hopping & New Alliances Will Intensify Next Year
There is already a steady blurring of lines between political parties, and outside of the extreme Left (Communists) and the extreme Right (BJP/RSS) the large middle section of the Indian political spectrum is pretty much the same colour, only with different people. And now, even that is changing. The political awakening of the 1970s and 1980s has created far too many leaders, especially in the Hindi belt, who are unwilling to wait for their turn at power. Consequently, party loyalty is becoming increasingly fickle even among parties that nurture strong personal bonds, such as the BJP, and it is beginning to worry even the Left parties. Major political actors who have changed their stripes in the last six months include Shankersinh Waghela (BJP to Congress), TN Seshan (Shiv Sena to Congress), SS Ahluwalia (Congress to BJP), Jaipal Reddy (JD to Congress), Renuka Chowdhary (TDP to Congress) and Srikant Jena (JD to Congress).
Public memory in India is also very fickle, and not only can a leader oscillate wildly in public opinion (Vajpayee has himself experienced sharp ups and downs in the last year, going from being a hero after Kargil to being lampooned as an inept PM after the IA hijacking and then bouncing back in command after a series of diplomatic successes) but can also get away with constantly shifting positions.
Thus, we not only expect the currently existing political equilibrium to gradually become more fragile as local elections in 2001 draw closer, but also new political combinations and party hopping to intensify at that time. However, until Sharad Pawars NCP or Chandrababu Naidus TDP are somehow part of these changes, it is unlikely to have a severe impact at the centre even though the country may appear to be on the verge of another political crisis.
The RSS has been frustrated by Vajpayees marginalization of its pro-Hindu social agenda and by the increasing ascendancy of moderate BJP leaders to positions of power. Apart from Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh other key advisors or ministers who are not of the RSS ilk include Vasundhara Raje (who, despite being a very mediocre junior foreign minister in the last government has been retained and now looks after key bureaucratic appointments), Arun Jaitley (in charge of major policy areas such as privatization and TV broadcasting), Pramod Mahajan (who oversees the IT industry and parliamentary passage of economic bills, again both very crucial jobs), Arun Shourie, Shanta Kumar and CP Thakur. In fact, and contrary to popular wisdom, there are very few RSS-loyal people at senior levels of government. Even the current Finance Minister, who was once thrust upon a grudging Vajpayee by the RSS, has deftly moved away from the RSS-brand of protectionist economics and is proving to be a willing team player, if not an ardent advocate, of further reforms and fiscal responsibility.
the RSS and its more rabid front organizations have acquired very little real influence
under a BJP-led government. Notwithstanding the high-profile controversy in the Indian
media over pro-RSS historians trying to rewrite Indian history, very few of RSSs
economic or social prescriptions have in fact been followed. The organization is feeling
betrayed and having been finessed by one of its own. This simmering discontent was kept at
manageable levels earlier under the previous RSS chief with whom Vajpayee shared a cordial
relationship, but with a change of guard in the RSS there is increasing talk in the Indian
media of a serious reassertion by the RSS over the BJPs heart and soul.
The fact is that the RSS is now finding it increasingly difficult to fight the complex dynamics of globalization, media influence, a consumer-oriented society and a decline of ideology in Indian politics (which is equally true for Leftist parties whose combined national voteshare has declined from 11 percent in 1989 to just over 7 percent 1999), and despite its occasional sabre rattling the RSS has frankly nowhere else to go except with the BJP. The reverse is also true, but the child is increasingly becoming more independent of its parent. The BJP may offer occasional obeisance to the RSS but the latters influence in key policy areas will continue to decline.
4) Congress In Disarray; Sonia Will Stay, But Party Will Shift Leftward
The Congress party is currently so demoralized and directionless that it is fast losing its weight as an effective and coherent opposition capable of regaining power at the centre. Luckily for Sonia Gandhi, the local media has been so preoccupied in recent months with President Clintons visit and other non-political events that much of this internal Congress malaise has stayed away from front-page news. But party morale is indeed very low, and for the first time the Congress is grappling with the reality of a post-Nehru dynasty era. In hindsight the Narasimha Rao regime appears to have been a transition stage, with the memory of Rajiv Gandhi in the background and with Sonia Gandhi acting as a reserve fuel tank. Now that she has been tried and has (in common perception) failed, the Congress party is really on its own for the first time without any clear crutches.
Sonia Gandhi has not only led the party to its worst performance ever in the last parliamentary elections (112 seats, down from 141) but her opaque style of functioning, dependence on a small coterie of followers and a series of political miscalculations have all created a terrible sense of disaffection and confusion in the party. Sonias inner clique consists of people with little political relevance on the ground, such as Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Pranab Mukherjee, RK Dhawan and Mani Shankar Aiyar. By relying on them, to the exclusion of leaders with a significant support base of their own, she has not only taken some inept decisions but has also made the Congress more vulnerable on many issues, most notably on corruption. This is a direct consequence of her support to the RJD (in Bihar) and to the AIADMK (in Tamil Nadu). Dissidence is on the rise, and many second-tier politicians have already left the party for greener pastures. Sonias top-down selection of candidates for the Upper House has been challenged in several states by local bosses and she now faces the possibility of the party splitting yet again in West Bengal, a development which if it happens will ensure defeat in next years local elections in that state.
Despite this, we believe that Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to be eased out of party leadership in the near future. Aside from the obvious risk that toppling her now may pose to the Congress in next years crucial elections, other reasons are:
Sonia Gandhi has still not given a no-holds-barred press interview or a major speech in Parliament, and indeed she spends much more time addressing farmers or labourers in far-flung rural areas than she does in reaching out to Indias media-fixated urban class. Her priority appears to be to sustain her image among the partys main votebanks and hold her opponents at bay until the start of the post-Vajpayee phase of Indian politics, when she can play a key swing role even with less than 100 MPs. Sonia Gandhis medium-term gameplan is not for the Congress to form the government under her command (which she anyway knows is quite impossible) but to exercise power even while staying away from office, similar to when a Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress party called the real shots from behind during the Chandrashekar regime of the early 1990s.
This strategy however puts her at complete odds with those in her party who are aging fast (physically or politically) and want another quick stab at ministerial authority and perks. They are itching to provoke a political crisis in or outside the party, but are neither confident nor united enough to mount a direct challenge to her. Consequently, Sonia is likely to stay as party boss for at least another year. But a humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh state elections could band her detractors under the leadership of an alternate leader, such as Sharad Pawar. In fact many dissident Congressmen are already in touch with Pawar.
While the long-term future of Congress leadership is very uncertain, what is perhaps more clear is the likelihood of the party becoming more Leftist over time, with its eye on poor rural voters. This push is inevitable given the fact that the Congress is fast losing appeal in urban areas and among the better educated, and that its vote bank is slowly becoming the same as that of Communist parties. Historically too, it has always had less support in cities than in villages. Unlike Vajpayee and Advani (who have repeatedly been elected from big cities) not a single Nehru-Gandhi family member, including Sonia Gandhi, has ever chanced his or her luck from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta and has always got elected from rural constituencies.
However, having itself initiated the opening of the Indian economy in 1991 it will now be tricky for the party to suddenly switch and oppose all changes, particularly those related to Indias commitments under the WTO. But the Congress will use a whole array of too-clever-by-half means to try to delay new policies without appearing to be opposed in principle. For instance, the party recently demanded that the NDA government first recover almost $ 15 billion worth of defaulted loans from Indian companies (a demand which everyone knows cannot be met) before restructuring or selling off PSU banks. Going even further, the party is opposing 100 percent FDI in telecom or disinvestment in steel and coal, and a senior Congress leader publicly spoke about "reviewing the entire spectrum of economic policies in the light of the impact of liberalization of the last decade."
5) Media & Political Pundits Are Increasingly Unreliable
The outcome of Bihar assembly elections was in sharp contrast to early opinion polls and editorials, most of whom had predicted a handsome NDA victory and RJD rout. That the Bihar results were just the reverse of these predictions is only the latest example of how the proliferating breed of Indian political pundits have been wrong, yet again. In fact, political experts have been frequently off the mark in the past two years, such as in declaring the demise of smaller parties (whereas, non-BJP and non-Congress parties gained the most in last elections) or in exaggerating the influence of the RSS on the BJP (it is quite clear that the BJP is going the Congress way, not the RSS way).
A good example is the last general election where we monitored various polls by major media organizations. A summary of their forecasts is given below. It is clear that most of them were quite wrong, particulalry in understanding state-level trends, and the reason some were correct in their overall numbers was because their errors cancelled each other out.
Rating The Pollsters
Looking Back At 1999 Elections, Most Polls Were Wrong
Note: 'BJP plus' means BJP and its allies, and similarly for Congress; 'BJP (UP)' means BJP performance in Uttar Pradesh