The Countdown To Elections 2004

Updated: Jan 4 2004, 05:30am hrs
As 2003 drew to a close, and people were making wishes for the New Year, I was struggling with two questions. First, why did the DMK pull out of the NDA government so soon after the BJPs victory in three state elections Second, when and why did Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decide that he should opt for early elections I have no definitive answers, but I intend to try.

The DMKs principal adversary is the AIADMK. Both have their core vote banks intact at about 25 per cent each of the actual turnout. Value addition, and the winning margin, come from allies. The DMK had three allies: BJP, MDMK and PMK. Of these, the MDMK may be able to add about 1-2 per cent, and the PMK would bring about 15 per cent but only in about 10 parliamentary constituencies (out of 39). As for the BJP, certainly, Mr Vajpayee would be able to pull in an additional 5 per cent of the votes. Mr Karunanidhis dilemma was, for whom will he pull in the votes Where there was a BJP candidate, the votes will surely be polled for that candidate, but where there was a DMK candidate (against an AIADMK candidate), will the votes be polled for the DMK candidate I suspect that Karunanidhi may have concluded that those votes would, in any event, go in favour of the AIDMK.

The AIADMK is, after all, the favoured party (more than even the local BJP) of the RSS, VHP, Hindu Munnani and the Kanchi Shankaracharya. I think Mr Karunanidhis calculations are correct. He saw no value in carrying the BJP on his shoulders, and so he pulled out on the eve of elections.

Coincidentally, Mr Maran also passed away, and there was no need to keep two ministers with inconsequential portfolios in Delhi. From the DMKs point of view, Mr Karunanidhis decision is a very sensible one.

Now, the second question. For several weeks Mr Vajpayee had refused to fall for the bait of an early election. There were good reasons for him to be cautious. Suppose the results of the election in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were due to the anti-incumbency factor Suppose there were communal conflicts around December 6 or terrorist attacks around December 13 Suppose the peace initiatives towards Pakistan ended in a whimper

I think these imponderables turned less uncertain in the first half of December. It is now clear that what did the Congress in was not only anti-incumbency but also the absence of allies to fight an election. Mr Vajpayee may have concluded that he could get over anti-incumbency if he was able to put together a fresh alliance. December 6 and December 13 also passed quite peacefully. The peace initiatives towards Pakistan seemed to have gathered some mass and momentum and the Saarc summit, even if it did not produce dramatic results, was not likely to turn into a diplomatic disaster.

But there were other f actors that may have finally influenced the Prime Minister to take the plunge. The foremost was the withdrawal of the DMK from the NDA and, as expected, it marked the beginning of the unravelling of the alliance. It was imperative that a new and secure alliance was put in place quickly.

Another factor was, I suspect, the rising inflation. At 5.63 per cent, it is at a 29-week high. It is obvious that there are differences between the government and the Reserve Bank of India on how to handle the influx of foreign exchange and the unchecked borrowing by the government. The government expenditure is also out of control. Hence, there is no assurance that the rising trend in inflation will be reversed. A third factor may have been the critical attention that the government has drawn to itself thanks to the India Shining campaign. More and more people are asking if India is really shining There are more questions about the fall in employment in the organised sector, the fall in employment in agricultural and the jobless growth that appears to be taking place.

The Prime Minister may have concluded that it would be best to book his profits now than put his faith in the bull run. If so, he deserves our congratulations on being an astute punter! Both Mr Vajpayee and Mr Karunanidhi have reached practical and sensible conclusions. The irony is that they will be in opposite camps!

Where does it leave the Congress The Congress has taken one and one-half steps forward. It has started a search for allies. It has also announced that while its leader will be Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the candidate for Prime Minister will be decided by the allies. The Congress is assured of at least two alliesRJD and DMK but both are strong players in their respective states and strong-willed negotiators who will bargain with the Congress from a position of strength. The Congress strength is that neither of the two can win without the Congress.

The next thing the Congress needs is an election plank. Some Congress leaders seem to think that secularism and secularism alone will do nicely. Secularism vs the Communal BJP is a worn-out battle-cry and, given the churning that has taken place in Indian politics, is hardly likely to lead the troops to victory. That does not mean that the Congress should abandon the secular platform and choose a variant of soft-Hindutva.

In my view secularism is a necessary political position, but not sufficient. The aspirations of every class of people have travelled beyond secular politics. Every class and every section demands a government that delivers.

The BJPs current position on governance is that it will deliver on matters that concern the urban population and the middle-class. Hence, the golden quadrilateral is more important than village connectivity. Hence, the cellular mobile telephone will reach every village before water and electricity do. Hence, tax collection from 25 million income tax assesses is more important than job creation for 80 million unemployed youth.

Elections 2004 throw up a rare opportunity for the Congress and other parties to present an alternative vision of economic reforms. The Congress vision in 1991 for heavens sake, please read that manifesto again was a dramatic break with the past. That was the starting point of a fresh adventure that has taken India not all Indians to new heights. The next path-breaking vision must be aimed at taking all Indians to new heights. Who will be the author of the script for a brave, new India Mr Vajpayee or Ms Gandhi

(The author is a former Union finance minister)