India Focus

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Vol 5, No 1

May 2000


Politics    •    Business        Economy    •    Society        Culture    •    Diplomacy



Medium–Term Political Trends



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:

  • Congress did badly in Orissa assembly elections and in mid-term polls in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (where Congress candidates lost their deposit in all 8 seats), but did reasonably well in assembly polls in Haryana and Bihar and in municipal elections in Rajasthan.

  • BJP fared well in mid-term polls in both Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, and also quite well in municipal elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chandigarh, but it surprisingly put in below-par performance in Bihar and Haryana assembly elections.

  • Some of BJP’s NDA partners have done well while others have not. The INLD held on to power in Haryana, the BJD did very well in Orissa and the TDP (in alliance with the BJP) captured almost 60 percent seats in municipal elections in Andhra Pradesh, while the Samata Party and JD(U) did very poorly in Bihar assembly elections.


Prime Minister Vajpayee’s personal popularity remains high and people are generally satisfied with the NDA regime, but speculation abounds in the political and diplomatic circuits of New Delhi about Vajpayee’s health. Some of these more extreme rumours (giving him only 6 months of good health) are perhaps inspired by vested interests and their media friends, but it is also true that Vajpayee does suffer from some sort of kidney ailment. The man himself seems to oscillate between periods of detachment and alertness.

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 Vajpayee’s 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 Delhi’s 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 BJP’s 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 year’s 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 Pawar’s NCP or Chandrababu Naidu’s 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.



3) Even Advani Cannot Undo RSS’s Decreasing Hold Over The BJP

The RSS has been frustrated by Vajpayee’s 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.

In short, 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 RSS’s 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 BJP’s heart and soul.

The new RSS chief is a blunt man with known hard-line views on a range of social and religious issues. He is also known to be privately very disdainful of Vajpayee and, in fact, his mentor in the RSS is Dattopant Thengde of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (the labour union arm of the RSS) who has perhaps been the most vocal critic of Vajpayee within the RSS till date. Given this development and the wide expectation that the hard-line LK Advani will soon take over as the new president of the BJP, many political analysts have speculated that the party will soon return to its ‘RSS moorings’ even if it means risking the collapse of the NDA alliance. We however believe that to be very unlikely. First, it is not entirely sure that Advani will agree to vacate the second most important post in government in order to go back to party work. Second, there are now many other factors at work besides pure loyalty to the RSS. Some of these are:

  • As close to the RSS as LK Advani may be, he is no sentimental fool. His one unfulfilled ambition is to become India’s next Prime Minister and in fact he is the only BJP leader who is a viable contender to take over from Vajpayee. But he knows fully well that to do so within the current Parliamentary arithmetic he will have to adopt moderate (perhaps even progressive) social views in order to win the backing of his NDA partners, or else risk leading the BJP into an uncertain general election. And without BJP’s current allies or a popular Vajpayee at the helm, an Advani-led BJP is almost certainly headed for a stint in the opposition if an election were to be held in the next 2-3 years.

  • Reviewing the last three general elections, it is clear that the BJP has reached a saturation point in many areas of the country and particularly in crucial northern states. For instance, the poor performance of the party in UP was not just due to tactical voting by Muslims or split of anti-Congress votes but an actual decline of the popularity of the party (its voteshare declined from 36.5 percent to 27.7 percent). To even get a simple majority of 272 on its own in a House of 544 the BJP will have to expand both its ideological appeal and its physical area of contests. The BJP did win 182 seats and was also second-placed in 115 others, but behind this is also the fact it lost over 60 of its previously held seats. And, of course, it was unable to further erode Congress voteshare. In other words, contesting more seats on its own is no guarantee that the BJP will win more seats. BJP’s options for organic growth (without relying on regional allies) even with full and active mobilization of RSS cadres are indeed limited in the medium term and it will be in BJP’s own interests to carry on with allies such as the TDP, DMK and Trinamul Congress who have little national ambitions to pose a challenge. But it is precisely these partners who are deeply distrustful of the RSS and who will immediately veto any RSS-inspired agenda.

  • There is a recurring myth that the pro-RSS faction of the BJP is dogmatic enough to even be prepared to sit in opposition rather than compromise on closely held beliefs. But the truth is that power creates its own brand of self-surviving compromises and deals, and the BJP is no longer immune to this after having enjoyed the perks of power. It is only in Gujarat and UP that the party has kept alive its strong links to the RSS on the ground, while in states such as Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Orissa and Delhi the local BJP leadership is now quite removed from the ideologically motivated and uncompromising RSS culture. In fact, the BJP is undergoing a silent but significant generational change of command at lower and middle levels of the party hierarchy, and many state-level BJP politicians are indistinguishable from Congress politicians. They may mildly support some RSS views but not strongly enough to forsake power.

  • An under-reported social outcome of India’s diplomatic, military and economic outpacing of Pakistan is that it tends to douse anti-Muslim sentiment among average Hindus. The more sympathy India wins over Pakistan in international fora or more it captures international attention over its successful democracy and dotcom revolution, less likely are Hindus to want some sort of retribution for ‘historical wrongs’ done on them by Muslims. In the long term the appeal of the extreme form of RSS ideology is perhaps most threatened by the emergence of a TV-influenced middle class with its focus on material and economic concerns, and the impact of this will begin to show even in small cities in the next 5 years.

  • Short of forcing an early collapse of the NDA alliance, which would be quite suicidal, the only real leverage the RSS has on the government is through its youth and labour fronts. And these have already been tried, but to no avail. The sharp rise in protests by government employees (banks, ports, state electricity boards, teachers, postal department or telecom) in the last few months is not coincidental, and in fact many of these strikes were secretly supported by the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (RSS’s trade union wing). A senior BMS leader even threatened at that time to withdraw support to the Vajpayee regime. This was all part of RSS strategy to keep Vajpayee in check, but it did not work. For instance, the government on its own terms ultimately broke the 2-month long strike by UP electricity employees. Public mood in the country is anyway fast turning against government employees, and having the largest trade union in the country may not be a prized asset for very long. There are signs that the RSS already realizes this, and the BMS has been very muted in reacting to Vajpayee’s recent announcement of changes in labour laws and has also stayed away from participating in the recent one-day national strike in protest against economic liberalization.

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 latter’s 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 Clinton’s 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. Sonia’s 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. Sonia’s 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 year’s 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 year’s crucial elections, other reasons are:

  • Even with her lucklustre style of speech, her handicap with the Hindi language and her lack of public experience, Sonia Gandhi is still the most recognizable Congress leader which the rural masses want to see and hear at political rallies. Under her campaign the Congress party has actually increased its national voteshare, and has not done so badly in local polls. For instance, it has held on to Madhya Pradesh and has returned to power in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra and Bihar (the last two in coalition with other parties). Thus, the verdict on Sonia is not all that clear, and her utility as the Congress party’s main electoral mascot may be down but it is still significant.

  • There is no alternate leader of sufficient national stature and acceptability. In the past few years the party has seen a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of its ‘stalwarts.’ Some senior leaders have quit the party (such as Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar) while others have been ignominiously defeated at the polls. The list of erstwhile senior Congress leaders who once held Cabinet-rank posts (or importance) but who have failed to be elected to Parliament is a long one, and includes Balram Jhakar, Natwar Singh, Shivraj Patil, Bhajan Lal, Motilal Vora, Vijay Bhaskar Reddy, Manmohan Singh, AR Antulay, PJ Kurien, Murli Deora, P Shiv Shankar and Chinta Mohan. With such a poor electoral record of their own and with extreme distrust towards each other, it is very doubtful if these politicians can mount a viable challenge to Sonia’s leadership. Indian newspapers have speculated on ex Prime Minster Narasimha Rao attempting a comeback, but we strongly discount these reports. He is too old and unpopular to be acceptable again.

  • It actually suits many people to have Sonia Gandhi at the helm, including even some in the Congress party. Local Congress leaders, particularly the Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled states, are happy to have a weak central leadership in the party because it allows them a free rein. For the ruling NDA alliance, Sonia Gandhi is a convenient symbol of all the wrongs and excesses of previous Nehru/Gandhi regimes, and for almost any issue that Sonia has raised (such as the move to review the Indian Constitution) the ruling alliance has been able to mount a counter attack with ready precedents from the past. A defensive and insecure Sonia increases the negotiating position of smaller/regional parties vis--vis the Congress, and as long as they keep silent on the Bofors gun deal or dynasty rule Sonia is quite willing to make deals with them.

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 India’s media-fixated urban class. Her priority appears to be to sustain her image among the party’s 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 Gandhi’s 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 India’s 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

Date

Forecast/Poll By

What They Forecast

How Correctly ?

May ‘99 Ashok Desai (economist & newspaper columnist) Congress     -    200 seats

BJP plus     -     210 seats

Totally off the mark; Correct only for smaller states like Punjab and Haryana
August ‘99

OUTLOOK Magazine

Congress      -    less than 120 seats

BJP plus       -    324 seats

Wrong state-level forecasts for almost all states except Bihar, but their all-India aggregate forecast was close.
September ‘99

INDIA TODAY Magazine

Congress      -    203 seats

BJP              -     232 seats

BJP (UP)    -    50 seats

Wrong state-level forecasts for almost all key states; grossly underestimated non-BJP and non-Congress parties.

September 2

Times Of India/DRS

Congress setback in Karnataka, AP and Rajasthan; BJP alliance to win big in AP, both in Parliament and Assembly polls This opinion poll was published just before Ist phase of polls, and except Karnataka it was quite correct for other states. First poll to indicate big Naidu win in AP.

September 7

Times Of India/DRS

Big win for BJP and its allies in Karnataka, AP, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu

 

This opinion poll was published just before 2nd phase of polls. Correct on Andhra and Tamil Nadu, but wrong on Karnataka and Maharashtra.

September 12

JAIN TV Channel

Congress & BJP will get even number of seats in Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat; BJP will do well in Maharashtra and AP Erratic state-wise predictions: quite wrong for some states

September 23

Times of India/DRS

Despite internal dissidence the BJP will hold on to its voteshare in UP; SP will end up as a marginalized force in UP and will get only 3 seats; BJP will suffer a big setback in MP and will get less than 15 seats Quite wrong in its predictions; totally underestimated SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh

September 22/26

Lokmat Times

Cong plus     -    201 seats

BJP plus       -    200 seats

Major gains for Cong in Delhi, MP and Tamil Nadu

Wrong in all states except UP, where it did predict a major setback for the BJP

October 1

Times of India/DRS

Congress      -    150 seats

BJP              -     182 seats

BJP plus     -     284 seats

BJP (UP)    -     49 seats

Cong voteshare (UP) - 20 percent

Continued to underestimate ‘Third Front’ parties and overestimate BJP in UP, even though it did get the overall BJP seats right

October 2

The Pioneer/RDI poll

Congress      -    165 seats

BJP plus       -     300 seats

Reverses for BJP in Gujarat, MP and Tamil Nadu; Third Front parties will get "drubbing"

One more poll which totally misjudged the strength of ‘Third Front’ parties and did not anticipate the extent of BJP’s slide in UP; it did however get the overall NDA total right

October 4

Doordarshan (government-owned TV channel)l

Cong plus     -     174 seats

BJP plus        -     287 seats

BJP              -      185 seats

Overestimated Congress gains and underestimated SP/BSP strength in Uttar Pradesh

Note: 'BJP plus' means BJP and its allies, and similarly for Congress; 'BJP (UP)' means BJP performance in Uttar Pradesh


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