Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The UPA's Legacy Year
This year marks the final lap of the UPA’s dispensation at the centre. With elections scheduled to be held anytime in 2009, the UPA is busy planning to make 2008 a legacy year of sorts. It will use this year to highlight its policies and initiatives taken since it came to power in 2004 while pushing pet schemes that have not had the desired outcomes. The script for what this year might look like, at least the planned script, is evident from the noises coming out of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet colleagues. The UPA is keen to project its ‘aam aadmi’ tilt and will want the electorate to focus on schemes it has come out with for that important constituency. Also, given the fact that elections are in the offing for big states like Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, where the Congress fancies it chances of winning the popular vote, it would like to use its four year reign as a vote catcher. This legacy year will also see the BJP-led NDA highlight the UPA’s shortcomings like its pro-minority policy approach, minorityism, terrorism and the failure on foreign policy fronts.

The UPA kicked of the year with talks of setting up the 2nd States Reorganization Commission to initiate the process of creating smaller states much like the NDA did during its tenure. The much debated issue of the formation of the state of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh was highlighted in the media. Then again a delegation of the UP Congress made a presentation to Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to carve out Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand from Uttar Pradesh. This move was a calculated step to not only stem the tide of popular support from Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, it was also brought to the fore with the idea to use the issue in the coming elections in 2009. The Telangana issue has been a contentious one which found no solution during either the NDA or the present regime. While coalition compulsions in the NDA could not see the rise of Telangana, the UPA’s main constituent, the Congress which rules the state currently, was not too keen on the issue which ultimately saw the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti walk out of the ruling coalition. The UPA will face uncomfortable questions on Telangana, if it does raise the issue, from the opposition as to why it could not carve the state out in its years in power. In Uttar Pradesh, bereft of any significant issues to raise and the virtual decimation at the hands of the BSP has ensured that the Congress will use the 2nd SRC as its main election plank in the general elections. However, the Congress will have to contend with the fact that UP Chief Minister Mayawati has already welcomed the idea of carving up smaller states, blunting the Congress’ ‘small states’ campaign even before it began in the state.

The Congress, through the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, raised quite a storm on the issue of minority quotas and the implementation of the Sachar Committee findings. As usual, Patil found himself in a quandary with the Human Resources Minister’s contradicting his stand on the issue. The Home Minister further tied himself up in knots by acknowledging that the quotas cannot go beyond the Constitutionally binding 50% but that the government will have to look at ‘ingenious’ ways of working around that limitation. The Congress had to distance itself from the Home Minister’s statements but the indication was clear that the government and the Congress would like to push the implementation of the Sachar Committee’s report and like to highlight its ‘pro-minority’ credentials. The UP has also been keen to highlight the rather ambitiously titled “Bharat Nirman” ad campaign. The campaign highlights the government’s infrastructure initiatives but has been careful of not repeating an “India Shining”. How this plays out in the electorate’s mindset is debatable, but the UPA has taken to the virtues of talking about development after the Modi campaign used it effectively in the Gujarat elections of 2007. There is also talk about highlighting the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, seen as the brainchild of Mrs. Gandhi, which has been hijacked unfortunately for the UPA by state governments who are claiming ownership of the project. A clever change in the name of the NREG by the state dispensations has made it look like a state wide initiative in many states, much to the chagrin of the Congress. A news story that did not make it to the headlines was on the Finance Ministry and PMO’s initiative to look at ways to make credit available to minorities on a priority basis. While currently, no mechanism exists to give credit on the basis of religion, the government does seem keen to bring about a mechanism to this effect. If the government does venture on this political landmine of an issue, the opposition will raise it as another example of minority appeasement sponsored principally by the pro-minority Congress party. Nevertheless, this scheme along with the rural health insurance scheme will find much focus in any future national campaigns.

The UPA has also been keen to keep its flock together. With the AIADMK making overtures to the BJP through Narendra Modi, the Congress would want to keep its Tamil Nadu ally the DMK in good spirits. This approach has ensured that the UPA will now see a new minister in DMK supremo’s daughter Kanomozhi taking the environment portfolio that was with the prime minister after A Raja moved out to the Telecommunications ministry. Also, the DMK has been allowed by the UPA to make supportive noises towards the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE, not wanting to roughen the edges of a somewhat steady alliance. However, the Congress has taken a baffling position vis-à-vis UP Chief Minister and BSP President Mayawati. The Congress and the UPA have been particularly accommodating towards Mayawati even in the face of a verbal barrage by the fiery chief minister, who even alleged that certain Congress leaders were out to have her eliminated. The Congress has helped Mayawati in the Taj Corridor case and the disproportionate assets case currently lodged with the CBI. However, their return on investment has been negligible and even damaging. BSP will and continues to push the Congress out of many national and state constituencies by appealing to the traditional Congress vote bank. This is evident in not only Uttar Pradesh but across the Hindi-speaking belt. By strengthening the hands of the BSP, the Congress seems to relying on the fact that she will not ally with the BJP in 2009. However, knowing her quest for power, Mayawati might not only eat into the Congress’ vote bank but also switch sides in 2009. By keeping her in good humor, the Congress is only feeding a monster that could turn on them.

On the foreign policy front, the UPA had put all its hopes on the Indo-US nuclear deal. With moribund talks not making much headway, the UPA is now looking for an honorable face saving exit from the deal. The chips are firmly positioned against the UPA on the nuke deal, with the Left clearly intend on forming a third front and not budging from its “deal or government” line and with talks with the IAEA going into extended sessions the deal may have to be buried unless the prime minister can find wiggle room to maneuver the passage of the remaining levels of negotiations quickly. If the deal does not go through, the prime minister will have to personally face a two sided attack for this foreign policy failure that he himself has nurtured. The Left will declare it a victory of sorts having stood firm on its position and bringing the government to do a volte face, while the supporters of the deal will highlight it as a missed opportunity to mend fences with the United States and the nuclear club. Though foreign policy has never really become a general election issue, the nuclear deal, which has the potential to break the UPA, will become a focus on the personal leadership of Manmohan Singh and on the UPA’s surrender to the Left.

The interesting aspect to this legacy year will be the timing of the elections. Most analysts suspect that they will be held in April 2009 or maybe even the end of 2008. The factors on which the timing depends are varied and non-linear. The future of the Indo-US nuclear deal, elections results in Rajasthan, Delhi and Chattisgarh, the Congress’ ties with its allies and the inter-party politics within the UPA will all decide the timing of the polls. Also, if the elections were to be held in early 2009, the election commission will have a new Chief Election Commissioner. With the current incumbent N Gopalaswami making way for either Navin Chawla or S.Y. Quereshi, both UPA appointees. Mr. Chawla has been at the receiving end of the BJP’s wrath with allegations of a bias towards the Congress and using his contacts within the Congress to help his foundation. If Mr. Chawla was to be appointed the Chief elections Commissioner, the BJP will raise this issue at all possible forums which could lead to further embarrassment for the government and may also alter the timing of the polls. But for all the punditry one still has to wait and watch how this year progresses and what surprises it holds.


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