The New Regimes Stable...For Now

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 17 2004, 05:30am hrs
This has been quite an election season, even by Indias rather spirited standards of twists and turns, and we are still too close to ground zero to be able to postulate sensibly or objectively on the future.

How stable is the new Congress-led regime likely to be I have heard varying estimates from those who claim to have an inside track, some giving this regime as little as six months before it collapses.

Much of this is fanciful buzz if not irresponsible guesswork. In order to sense how stable or unstable the new regime will prove to be, it would be useful to look at some trends that are clear.

First, and this is an obvious no-brainer but deserves mention as the starting point, Sonia Gandhi remains the real centre of power. The language, style and formation of the new government has her imprint all over it, plus she remains the head of the Congress parliamentary bloc, of the ruling United Progressive Alliance and of the coordinating body established to oversee broad policy. This is an amazing triple crown, an unprecedented concentration of power and prestige unseen in almost three decades in the country.

Second, whatever happens to the Congress, the BJP faces an identity and leadership crisis even if it pretends that all is normal. And this goes beyond Sonias political masterstroke that has eaten into its Indian-culture positioning. Over the last six years, the distinction between the BJP and the Congress has blurred, and this is what BJP leaders are perhaps discussing right now, the value of loss of ideological dilution. The trouble is that they may be misdiagnosing the malaise.

Despite the election result, there remain strong pockets of resentment in the country at what the Congress culture has come to represent in the past: dynasty rule, corruption, insincerity and cynical opportunism. But the BJP failed to reap that harvest precisely because it may now be viewed as no better, thanks to unnecessary cussedness on some issues and not enough honest courage on others.

To give it credit, it did try to adopt a middle-of-the-road position on many issues, but it also took its time rectifying some obvious moral, political and policy mistakes. If anybody cares to recall the mood of the country in the latter 60s or early 70s, this was precisely how the turning point for the Congress came about. This election will be remembered as an election which the BJP lost rather than which the Congress won.

Third, while the going is good for Congress allies for now, they have reason to worry in the long term. It serves neither Sharad Pawar nor Laloo Yadav to provide a full and comfortable tenure to this regime and then face the prospect of one of the younger Gandhi children taking over the reins. Nothing rattles them as much as the prospect of yet another generation of Gandhis making them irrelevant. It is in their interest to force another round of elections in the next three years, time enough for the renunciation praise to wane but well before either Rahul or Priyanka become acceptable to the public as a rightful heir.

In fact, Sonia Gandhis renunciation of the PM post has given her a halo and image that could only have been fantasised about three months ago, making her tower over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and all other alliance leaders. In the medium term, this is neither healthy for the Congress nor advantageous for Sonia personally, since to be revered is also to be held to a higher standard by the public. And of course, it could be argued that it is she, and not the BJP, which is now a bigger threat to the growth of alliance partners and third parties such as Mulayams Samajwadi Party.

What all this means is that despite much talk about the Maharashtra elections being a real crunch time, the new regime would in fact be stable for at least two years. The real test of wits will at the earliest happen in the latter half of 2006 (or beginning of 2007) when a series of key developments will approach, including elections in West Bengal, Tamilnadu and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP will need the interim period to figure itself out and build up a new muscle and purpose, if at all it can do so in this time. The Left parties and the DMK, the most crucial of Congress allies both numerically and morally, have no real reason to either move away from the governing alliance or play to the gallery with excessively truant demands. Conversely, the Congress too gains nothing politically by snapping its ties with either of them until that time.

And so, even as the future trajectory of economic reforms remains uncertain if not dull, there may some political stability in the new order.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors