Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Good riddance….UPA better off without Mamata

Watching the TV news channels last night, one got the feeling as if the Congress had been caught off guard. That Mamata had given a “stiff blow” (as the TOI called it) to the Congress. But really, what happened was pretty much along expected lines. Mamata was under pressure to prove she was not one who just gave empty threats. It was this pressure more than any logical reason that made her do what she did. What happened last night could have happened at any other time in the last couple of years. Mamata was never a suitable partner for the UPA. Now that she has gone, the UPA should say Good Riddance and look at life beyond her.

Many things emerge from the political developments of last night.

The UPA government is safe. There won’t be any mid-term elections. Why? Because most parties don’t want elections. The Left, BSP and DMK for sure have no interest considering their most recent losses. The truth is that even the TMC, SP, and AIADMK (the “victors”) don’t want to take chances, the SP and TMC in particular. The first six month’s of SP’s rule has been one that the party would like to forget, with the law and order situation so bad that the people are starting to wonder why they threw Mayawati out at all. It’s the same in Bengal where nearly half the people have rated Mamata “below expectations”, in a recent poll, after just one year. The Left may well surprise Mamata if elections were held now. Voters are fickle at the best of times; who wants to take chances?

Mayawati is the most reliable option for the Congress at the moment. I remember a few years back just before the 2009 elections, the editor in chief and anchor of a prominent English news channel was extolling the virtues of Mayawati if she became PM, to an audience packed with India’s biggest industrialists. Half in jest, but half seriously too, he said that Mayawati would be the best for corporate India, since she “officially” has no fixed policies about anything! She was the most amenable to adopting a policy if “persuaded”. Everyone got the message! Mayawati may generate some soundbytes about diesel and FDI and all that, but really, she knows that her voters don’t care about such fine points. All they care for is their identity, and will do whatever Maya tells them to do. Such is her loyal following that even in the recent elections when she lost badly, Mayawati’s vote share eroded by just 4%. If the Congress can “persuade” her well (!), she may well find it a good option to support the UPA. Maya is on a comeback in UP, but she needs to give the SP a little more time…..in the meanwhile, she could do with a helping hand from the Congress.

Even the SP will provide support to the UPA, though its motivation to do so is a little lesser than Mayawati’s. It may feel that it can benefit from early elections, but it knows just how badly fragmented its own party has become after coming to power. Shivlal Yadav and Azim Khan are a nuisance for Mulayam and Akhilesh, who in his maiden innings would like to get a full term with a friendly party at the Center. Given the political realities, hitting out at each other in media may well be the practice, but pragmatic ground realities will make Mulayam think carefully. And Mulayam knows he cannot topple the government either; at least not as far as Mayawati is there to prop the UPA up.

Maybe this is why the TOI calls both of them “ultra pragmatic”!

As far as Mamata is concerned, I think she needs to be kept in quarantine for a bit, and left to stew in her own juices. She’s made a joke of herself, switching sides some 7 times in the last 15 years. No one wants to partner with her unless it become mandatory. It’s clear that she’s emerged as the real Left in Bengal leaving the whole Right liberal space open. Like I said yesterday, that space is open for the Congress to grab. Bengal wants reforms, not Mamata. Just give Mamata another year….she’ll self destruct. I however do feel sad for Bengal, a state of highly intellectual people, but one who have been cheated by all politicians, most of all Mamata. This is not why they voted Mamata to power. Now they will have to suffer for five more years. Forget industrialization and jobs; the Bengali will have to keep looking outwards – the brain drain from Bengal will continue. The Bengalis pride themselves for having led the country during the freedom struggle. Now they will have to live with the ignominy of being the leaders of a dogmatic economic world. How ironic that such an intelligent bunch of people only vote for the Leftists and the even-more-Leftists?!

So the Congress will survive. But what happens to reforms? If the Congress can win Mayawati over, the reforms will continue. The Congress realizes it is the only champion of reforms; if it can package the reforms well so that the people understand the benefits (and they do), it will continue. It must seize the opportunity to sue up many open issues. The Teesta waters deal with Bangladesh, the Pension reforms bill, the Railways modernization program must all be taken up in a hurry. The Congress knows what Mayawati really cares for. With the bill on reservations in promotions already tabled in Parliament, the BSP can claim credit for something that matters deeply to her constituency.

One thing is for sure. The Congress could not have been caught by surprise. It knew what Mamata could potentially do. It is this fear that prevented them from enacting reforms in the past. When policy making stagnates, unwanted  pain points emerge. It is as much the anger with policy paralysis that led people to support the Anna movement and for the scams to emerge as the other way round. In just a couple of days of policy action, people have forgotten much of that. People want reforms. They will support those who support reforms.

Clearly the one who is not supporting reforms is the BJP. Not surprising then that the BJP is the most unexcited by the developments. Posturing aside, the party surely realizes that its chances at coming to power in 2014 have drastically reduced with Mamata’s “bold” move. Mamata doesn’t want to tie up with the BJP. Maya and Mulayam don’t want to have anything to do with the BJP. And the BJP doesn’t even have a presence in the Southern states (Karnataka is already lost). With the Congress taking reconciliatory steps towards Telangana, it will not do so badly in AP as some believe. Surely the Congress has factored all this in when it finally bit the bullet last week. No matter what media reports suggest, I don’t believe the BJP will seek a no confidence vote in a special session of Parliament. If it did so, it will help the government prove its majority too soon. It would rather let the government be on tenterhooks till Jan next year when the next session is scheduled.

Net net, nothing unexpected in yesterday’s developments. And if handled well, the UPA can actually emerge stronger now. Reforms can get a big push; more than we’ve seen in the first three years of UPA-2. Of course, there will be more “vote for cash” kind of deals; but then we’ve to be clear. Do we want a new election and yet another unstable coalition or do we want reforms with a little “jugaad”??!

One last thing. Those of us who tend to forget history should remind ourselves of how difficult the reforms journey in India has been. Manmohan Singh first faced the challenges in 1991 when the BJP vociferously opposed reforms. The fact is no one wants reforms in India. This may offer some explanation for why introducing auctions in coal blocks took 7.5 years – no one wanted it. Only the Congress stands out in “majestic isolation” (to borrow a phrase from Arun Jaitley!). If we are happy with India today than before 1991, it is because of Manmohan Singh and the Congress. Let this message not get diluted. The BJP may give the impression it is pro-reform, but in reality it is just another version of the Left.

The real truth is that Mamata’s action was all too expected. She’s let the people of her state down, most of whom are already disillusioned with her. If they wanted Leftist policies, they could as well have continued with the Left. The Congress now has to be smart. With Mayawati, it can tango much better than it ever could with Mamata. So lets relax….its all going to plan!  

1 comment:

  1. I think Didi's hand was forced out of her fear of giving the Left a very strong platform to paint her in anti-poor, anti-labour light in view of the FDI/LPG etc. She got check mated without the Congress wanting to do that. Congress itself felt check mated if they didn't do what they did - knowing very well it would corner Didi into a tight spot vis a vis the Left. If we look closely, every dispensation seems check mated. The pieces on the board, therefore, stay frozen to their places!