Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Telengana, Jharkhand fixed…..Congress looks at UPA3 with new hope

In the end, Telengana proved to be an easier-than-thought problem. Newspaper reports indicate how by removing Telengana from “erstwhile” Andhra Pradesh (it’s a little unnerving how words like erstwhile get suddenly appended to Andhra!), the remnant part of AP is actually going to emerge even stronger and richer. The realization that they don’t have to keep funding Telengana will eventually mean a lot to people there. And of course, the euphoria in Telengana is bound to keep that part cheering. The neat handling of Hyderabad city will also help in the smooth division of the state. All this will no doubt improve the Congress’s chances in 2014.

And in Jharkhand, six months after the BJP government in the state collapsed, the President’s rule in the state ended with the Congress sewing up an alliance with the JMM. That must surely improve the Congress’s and UPA’s chances with the 14 seats in that state.

The NDA in contrast has been ransacked and mauled in the last three months since Narendra Modi ascended the throne of his party. First the JD(U) exited a 17-year old relationship with the BJP. The last two poll forecasts had assumed all parties to fight independently in Bihar; hence they had shown the BJP gaining in that state. But surely if the Congress ties up with either the JD(U) or RJD or manages to at least get the support of both (a la UP), the poll equations in that state will change decisively against the NDA and pro the UPA.

Then there are the discomforting (for the BJP) statements made by Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Naveen Patnaik et al, as well as the known stated positions of the UP chieftains, Mulayam and Mayawati that whatever happens they will not sign up with the NDA. Many bridges have been burnt with TMC, DMK, JMM and of course JD(U) since the NDA government of 1999-2004, and many (if not most) of these will prove difficult to re-build. Especially if one looks at the viciousness of the BJP’s acrimony towards the JD(U) these days. The other day I heard some BJP spokesperson (I think it was Meenakshi Lekhi, or Smriti Irani) say on TV that JD(U) was never a reliable ally. Never??? But it was your ally for 17 long years…..and it was unreliable??! C’mon there have to be at least some courtesies towards ex partners, right? The Congress never bad mouthed the DMK when it left, nor has it been so vituperative even towards the whimsical Mamata.

The Telengana decision came too late, but it’s going to be good for the Congress. How many seats will that improve Congress’s chances by (compared to the two polls of the last week?). Maybe 10? And with Jagan Mohan Reddy now cut to size (quite literally!), and with his dislike for BJP very visible, chances are that he will be forced to cut a deal with the Congress, or at least ally with the party post-poll or pre-poll. I have a feeling that the Congress will promise to make him the CM, a condition that should have been met in the first place. But like they say, vision is 20:20 in hindsight!

The Congress has also started speaking more coherently, and strongly with Maken in place. The instant rebuttals of Modi have put him a little in his place. For the last 2 weeks, I haven’t heard any big statement from him. He must be carefully researching his numbers now I guess! Equally, asserting that the Indian economy was still the 2nd fastest growing major economy in the world, the government is finally making an attempt to correct the mis-perceptions that India alone has slipped. Things are bad, but India is hardly the only one suffering. It’s not an easy message to drive home, but at least the battle with the BJP’s constant hammering of policy paralysis and mis-governance has been joined.

What is easier to deliver however, is the message that this government means business. A slew of reforms have been launched in the last one year. And Chidambaram and the PM have both promised that there are more on the way. The Cabinet Committee of Investments has cleared projects worth tens of thousands of crores, and the PMO’s own push with a committee of secretaries, projects worth tens of thousands more. There is a new swagger in the party – with the Congress talking now of liberalizing the FDI regime even in hitherto sacrosanct areas of the economy like Defence, pensions….even news media. It is soon to make FDI norms in multi-brand retail more liberal, maybe even increasing FDI to 74%. It will probably challenge the BJP’s double standards on retail – after all if the concern of the BJP is the small retailer (baniya), then why is it OK for domestic biggies to operate in the sector? Will the Reliances, Birlas, Biyanis of the world be more concerned with protecting the livelihood of the baniyas (the rubbish claim that the BJP makes) than Walmart and Carrefour will be?

The real truth is that the 800 pound guerilla, the Grand Old Party as it is called, is ready to fight. And cut its opposition to size. For those who support secular politics, and inclusive growth, it’s a reassuring sign. The polls are still many months away – fortunes in India change virtually overnight. UPA3 is hardly a chimera!

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