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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Farewell to the H-word

The Communists gave a needlessly bad name to "revisionism". What should have been welcomed as a continuous exercise in critical inquiry was made a term of abuse.

This tendency of some ideological formations (and religions) to fall back on certitudes is inimical to creative politics.

When I asked the question, "Is Hindutva a millstone round the BJP's neck?" various people equated it with heresy. Some of the comments to the earlier posting reflected this rigidity. It was even suggested that people who could even ask such a question should join the Congress.

It reminded me of one of Lenin's more outrageous formulations: "Better fewer but better."

Hindutva did capture the political imagination in the period 1988-1996. It helped BJP move from 2 seats in 1984 to 161 in 1996. Its momentum created the groundwork for regional alliances that saw Vajpayee govern for 6 years.

Hindutva emerged as an alternative view of India amid the debris of the Nehruvian consensus.

  • The Congress was seen to be unable to deal with threats to nationhood in Kashmir and Punjab.
  • It was seen to accommodate regressive Muslim demands, viz. Shah Bano case.
  • The licence-permit-quota raj had run out of steam but it wasn't till 1991 that an alternative model was put in place.
  • The BJP was fresh, untested and promised to be a party with a difference.

Hindutva appealed to a large swathe of Hindu society, particularly middle classes, the youth and Middle India. It promised a new beginning.

Have things changed?

  • The global terrorist threat has brought home the ugly face of Islamist bigotry. But this has also bred an intolerance of hate speech and moral policing which are now associated with Hindu groups. Hindutva has become ugly. It has repelled Hindus.
  • India has become far more globalised and cosmopolitan than it was in the 1990s. There is a greater sense of cultural absorption.
  • India has witnessed staggering economic success. This has turned the beleaguered Hindu of the 1990s into a self-confident Hindu willing to take on global challenges and accept global opportunities.
  • As a doctrine, Hindutva has been intellectually stagnant. It still harks back to Savarkar or historical examples.
  • The energies of religious Hinduism vests with the gurus who tend to be patriotic but propagate universalism.
  • The BJP is seen as a bunch of fuddy-duddies unable to relate to India's modernity. It is seen as too preoccupied with narrow religious issues.
  • BJP's integrity quotient has taken a nosedive.

Hindutva is posing a serious image problem which distracts attention from the other attributes of the party. Hindutva may be a backdrop but if the backdrop grabs all the (negative) attention, the everyday message of the party is lost.

There are times when a term becomes a block and an obstacle. Clause 4 became a block for the Labour Party and "dictatorship of the proletariat" for the Communists. Both were shelved.

The BJP should quietly shelve Hindutva in the same way as Nehru shelved Gandhism and Narasimha Rao dispensed with socialism.

Enlightened nationalism and modernity should become the two defining attributes of the BJP. Otherwise the party faces a growing marginalisation for its inability to move with the times.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What's wrong with debate?

Some of the respondent to the blog have expressed their unease at the openness of the debate. Many of the comments have been quite irreverent and even insulting of senior leaders of the BJP. Almost every BJP leader from Advani and Rajnath Singh to Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley have come in for attack and some praise. The RSS too has been subjected to critical scrutiny.

Should all this happen in a blog which is avowedly sympathetic to the Right and the BJP?

I see no harm in the exercise for a number of reasons:

  • There is a temptation on the part of the BJP to avoid all debate in the name of discretion. There was no debate after the 2004 defeat and the UP Assembly debacle. The consequences are there for all to see.
  • Discussions cannot be confined to private, closed door meetings that involve "trusted" people alone. It is important to understand what the average party sympathiser and BJP voter thinks and feel.
  • It is irrelevant that some comments may be uninformed. Perceptions also matter in politics.
  • Apparatchiks don't like rocking the boat. They are inclined to minimise the setback and pretend that its back to business. That way they are not threatened.
  • I am appalled that there is a move to amend the BJP Constitution and allow the party president to extend his term by another 2 years. If this happens, the BJP motto should read: Nothing succeeds like failure.
  • There is no threat to the viability of the BJP if hostile elements pick up critical comments. Does anyone seriously believe that the political wing of the IB is unaware of what is happening inside the party. Moloy Dhar's Open Secrets names some prominent BJP functionaries who were providing information to the IB in the 1990s.
  • There is an elaborate filter through which information is gathered by the RSS leadership. Some of the top rung are blissfully unaware of the transmission losses.

I feel that we have only just begun the debate. In the coming weeks, I will raise more basic questions such as the one no wants to confront: IS HINDUTVA A MILLSTONE ROUND THE BJP'S NECK?

But that is for another day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Before gangrene sets in

I nurtured the glimmer of hope that the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting yesterday (Saturday, May 23) would prompt some response from the leadership on the poll debacle.

Predictably, it came to nought. Both Advani and the party President are conveying the unmistakable signal that they are accountable to no one but themselves.

It is only a matter of time before disquiet turns to abuse. (My piece in Sunday Pioneer)

I understand that others are not so squeamish. They have waited long enough and will now start speaking. In guarded tones to begin with.

The RSS is speaking in different voices. One lot is peddling the crazy line that we need more Hindutva of the Varun Gandhi variety. They are all over TV peddling this ideological monstrosity.

[Just see the results of Hardwar where the VHP made the fielding of its own candidate a prestige issue. The BJP candidate, the state education minister, was changed in mid-stream. Also see the outcome in one of the East Delhi seats where a VHP activist was dragged out of hibernation and fielded. See the results of Kandhamal, the scene of the still-born Hindu revolution.]

Another lot just wants to increase their control over the party. They want to make sure the party president is rewarded for keeping his appointing authority in good humour. They also want to "fix" Modi for his insolence.

While all these shenanigans are taking place, there is one question that few are willing to address: the moral decline of the BJP. In ethical terms, the past three years has seen the BJP sink to the level of the SP and BSP.

In the past, corruption and money power was a marginal problem. Today, it is reaching the very top. Is the failure to extract favours a reason why some people are demanding the Uttarakhand CM's head? Wasn't this precisely why some people also turned against Modi?

The issue briefly came to the fore in the wake of Arun Jaitley's protest against the appointment of an individual to an election body. Jaitley was then advised by everyone to hold his fire till May 13. After the verdict shouldn't some of these ethical issues be addressed seriously? Or should everyone wait for the gangrene to set in?

That the BJP needs an ethical purge is certain. But why such a purge worry those whose records are clean?

What is striking is the extent to which those who claim to speak on behalf of the RSS have been compromised. According to media reports, the Sangathan mantri of the Rajasthan BJP has been reverted to the "parent cadre". Will other heads also roll?

It's time they did.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Private mourning and public recriminations

A recurrent theme of the comments to earlier blogs is media exposure. Should BJP leaders expose themselves incessantly to a hostile media? Or, should they remain somewhat aloof like, say, Vajpayee and Modi?

I don't think there are any easy answers.

First, it is important to acknowledge that media is the foremost instrument available to any political party to communicate its views. A mass party like the BJP (I disagree with those who say it is a cadre-based party) must communicate to its workers, supporters and the general public. The media is the quickest and most cost-effective way this can be done. Of course, it is not the only tool of communication. But it is the most effective.

Secondly, reliance on the media comes at a price. It attaches a premium to those who are able to communicate effectively. It also creates a breed of political activists who view public life exclusively through the prism of media exposure.

The politics of Kapil Sibal, for example, consists of hopping from one press conference to another. Venkiah Naidu too has been criticised for the unfailing regularity of his press briefings at different places.

Finally, politicians often often forget that they are not obliged to say something just because a pesky reporter shoves a camera and microphone before you. The charm of seeing one's face on TV is so compelling that it overrides an individual's sense of discretion.

There are some individuals who are horrible on TV. K.R. Malkani was a great individual but he had zero TV presence. His tenure as BJP spokesman in the mid-1990s was an unmitigated disaster. But the few channels that existed then loved him precisely because he came across as comic. Till two years ago the channels also loved B.P. Singhal (brother of Ashok Singhal) because he corresponded to the stereotype of the fanatical and irascible BJP. And in the five years he was unleashed on people, Praveen Togadia lost the BJP the support of every moderate Hindu.

Unless judiciously handled, the media is a double-edged sword. It gives publicity but the smallest slip-up is wildly exaggerated. Media has no sense of compassion; it is merciless and it is mercenary.

Yet, the media cannot rejig the environment totally. In Gujarat, the media was implacably hostile to Narendra Modi during both 2002 and 2007 Assembly election. But it couldn't redefine an existing public mood.

Although media meant only the print media in the early-1990s, the hostility to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was quite fierce and almost unequivocal. This didn't breed any larger Hindu hostility to the movement. Would the results have been the same if a hostile print media was complemented by a fiercely hostile TV media?

I believe that the media matters up to a point. It helps nurture deep impressions that become very hard to shake off. In this election, the media was very successful in painting the BJP as a party of ugly Indians--the fanatics who beat up women, plant boms in Malegaon and deliver hate speeches.

This became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, let us keep one fact in mind. The media, by and large, was incredibly generous towards L.K. Advani. In the final days of the campaign, the "LK Advani Communication Office" sent out a well produced booklet reproducing all the interviews given by Advani during the campaign. It added to up quite a lot.

Activists are getting hassled about Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and others going public with their criticisms. I have some reservations and a few points of agreement with what they said. But that isn't the point.

The fact is that as long as the party delays a structured, free and frank post-mortem of the results, there will be a temptation to find other outlets. I admire the patience of those who have refrained from speaking out but this sense of discipline must not be over-stretched.

I am frankly disappointed that Advani hasn't uttered a word. He owes it to the party to share his analysis. Otherwise he face a lot of flak for staying on as LOP. The same is true for the party president.

Procrastination will encourage the media to fish in troubled waters.

The important thing is to learn from the defeat. But this can't happen unless the party grasps where and why it went wrong.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is to be done NOW?

The debate over the election analysis and a medium-term strategy for the BJP's recovery has produced many interesting responses. I guess that debate needs to continue for we are nowhere near any broad conclusion.

In any case, who the party posits as its PM candidate in 2014 doesn't have to be settled. The Modi option, if it is viable, should be addressed around 2012. By then the Supreme Court threat would have been resolved.

There are, however, some immediate concerns. Going by what Manmohan Singh told the President, the UPA now has the support of 320 MPs in the Lok Sabha. This gives the government a comfortable working majority. More important, with both the SP and BSP declaring unditional support to the government, it means that the dominant Opposition space is now with the BJP and NDA. The Left is also there but it has become a marginal player.

How is the Opposition space going to be used?

It would have been best if the BJP had gone into the 15th Lok Sabha with a new leadership team. However, since, for whatever reasons, Advani has chosen to stay on as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the party has to persist with him.

It would have set a good precedent if the BJP had polled its Lok Sabha MPs (by structured consultation if not a secret ballot) as to who they wanted as Opposition Leader. The private confabulations produced bizarre suggestions including the one purportedly from the RSS man who is "responsible" for RSS-BJP ties. The confusion this generated made people fall back on Advani.

In any case, there are two qualifications that any LOP must have.

  • He/she must be bilingual.
  • Must have a grasp of parliamentary procedures

The person has to be effective and not merely wallow in a Cabinet minister's status.

My own choice for LOP is Sushma Swaraj, with Yashwant Sinha as the deputy leader. Sushma is good for political interventions and has the social skills of the ceremonial duties the post entails. Yashwant would be good for solid interventions on the economy and foreign policy.

Ananth Kumar is another MP who can perform a deputy's role but I think he should remain general secretary in the party.

In the Rajya Sabha, there is some talk of appointing Shanta Kumar as Leader of Opposition. This would be tantamount to mocking the electorate's desire to see a generational shift.

Frankly speaking, there is only one choice for the Rajya Sabha post. Arun Jaitley fits the bill in all respects. He can lead the policy charge against the UPA.

As they say in legalese, none of the appointments should prejudice the selection of the next BJP president in December this year.

The BJP is crying out for radical change. If the entire issue can't be settled immediately, let us at least move one step at a time.

But it has to be one step forward, not backward.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Picking up the pieces

The more heartening feature of the 200 or so comments to my earlier posting is the frankness of views (including the observation that I bear an uncanny resemblance to Raj Thackeray). There is no structured forum where people of broadly similar views and concerns can state their views bluntly. The BJP certainly offers no platform for free and frank discussion--the National Executive meetings have become an occasion for leaders to deliver speeches. I have not censored anything, including the uncharitable comments on leaders, in the belief that BJP functionaries should gauge what the party's supporters truly feel.

I do recognise that a dialogue on internet conducted in English (and also involving non-residents whose concerns and perspectives are a little distant) is a very limited exercise. Still, it is a modest start.

I want to emphasise the importance of a candid discussion in the light of the BJP's reluctance to dissect the debacle. Having re-anointed Advani as Leader of Opposition, the party leadership has retreated into a shell.

DIVIDED OPINION

It is clear from the responses that there is a sharp division on many counts:

  • Some people say Hindutva is the soul of the party and without Hindutva the BJP becomes another Congress. Others feel that aggressive Hindutva is the road to political oblivion.
  • Modi, as usual, evokes controversy. He is somehow associated with hard Hindutva. Those who feel that the BJP should become more centrist feel that Modi isn't nationally acceptable. The pro-Hindutva lot think ideology overrides the importance of individuals.

POINTS OF AGREEMENT

There are three main areas of agreement:

  • The BJP must seriously take up work in states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra and West Bengal where its presence is nominal.
  • There is implicit agreement of the fact that the BJP will have to fight its battles alone, without the benefit of alliances.
  • There is agreement that the media, particularly the English-language media, is viscerally hostile. Most of those who commented felt that alternative media space should be probed. (Please see my posting: "A 'nationalist' TV channel?" of March 18, 2009)

MY CONCLUSIONS

  • I think that strident Hindutva of the early-1990s variety is looked upon with disfavour by large sections of the population. The BJP must take steps to distance itself from extremist elements. Most important, it must be seen to be doing so.
  • Development is the main concern of people. The BJP governments have a good track record of development but it is weak in the articulation of economic issues. But economics has to be the priority in the coming years. The BJP has to be totally focused on economic issues.
  • The BJP must champion social reform, particularly women empowerment.
  • What will distinguish the BJP from the Congress is an uncompromising adherence to ethical politics. Unfortunately, this is one area where the party has faltered. The Congress has stolen a march by inducting bright, young, idealistic people. This has helped it overcome the complications of dynasty.
  • The RSS is increasingly being regarded as an impediment to change in the BJP. It is replacing its old moral leadership with organisational control.
  • The party leadership looks and appears tired. The present leadership lacks combativeness. Modi, despite his flaws, is the only leader with energy and an inspirational quotient. I believe that pressure from below will catapult Modi to the national leadership.
  • Modi must project himself as an aggressive moderniser. He must take care to shed frivolity and acquire more gravitas.

We have just about begun the process of discussion. I hope it continues.

Postscript: My heart goes out to the person who slogged endlessly for the BJP and didn't even receive a modest thank you. I know the feeling too well. I feel it myself.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

More or less NAMO



My previous post attracted nearly 75 responses in less than 24 hours. I thank everyone for taking the time to address the question.

Predictably, there was no unanimity. But there were two broad strands of thought:

  • Those who want the BJP to take on an uncompromisingly pro-Hindutva stand and assert its identity on that basis.
  • Those who feel that Hindutva's time has past and therefore it is more prudent and electorally judicious for the BJP to become a more conventional right-of-centre party. Of course, this stand was coupled with interesting suggestions (drawn from marketing) of how to increase the BJP's appeal.

I got a feeling that those who opted for the first course tended to be based outside India. One of them even recommended that people like me should be thrown out of the party--a difficult proposition because I am not a member of the party. Another identified me as a member of the anti-RSS faction.

I don't feel there is any need to personalise the debate. We are discussing ideas. But I think there is a basis for suggesting that ultra-nationalists do tend to believe that the integrity and patriotism of those less forthright are somehow suspect. This prompts them to arrive at somewhat bizarre and over-conspiratorial conclusions.

However, the role of the individual did seem to matter on one count: the future role of Narendra Modi.

There is no question that Modi's role in this election was seminal. He addressed meetings in nearly 150 constutuencies, particularly in western India. His meetings were very well attended, marked by enthusiasm and invariably reported in the media. Without his presence, the Congress inroads in Gujarat would have been greater.

Modi's speeches in this election were quite focused on development and security. But his asides on the dynasty received maximum coverage--quite predictably. The "budiya"-"guriya" remarks in particular drew flak.

Throughout my visits to constituencies I made it a point to ask BJP workers about Modi. The responses were quite uniform. The BJP supporters believed that had Modi been the PM candidate, the party would secure more than 200 seats.

I can't say whether this perception was based on fact or wishful thinking. What matters is the fact that Modi excites the imagination of the BJP supporter.

At the same time, Modi carries the baggage of liberal derision. Many CMs from non-Congress parties admire Modi's administrative skills and development record. Yet, they fear any formal association with him on account of a Muslim reaction.

It would be fair to say that this Muslim veto has prevented Modi's emergence on an all-India plane.

Do we accept this veto meekly or should it be countered frontally?

A good way of countering it is by making sure Modi effectiveness is maximum. When I say he has to curb some of his rhetorical excesses, I am merely suggesting that the media must not be given any opportunity to attack him for being frivolous or personally offensive.

When I say that Modi must work on his national acceptability I do not say he should change his image. There is nothing worse or more pathetic than a leader trying to be what he/she is not.

Modi's image rests on three pillars:

  • As a Hindu icon, a modern day Shivaji.
  • As an efficient administrator committed to development. His Gujarat record speaks volumes.
  • As a no-nonsense leader, capable of taking tough decisions even at the risk of unpopularity.

It is tragic but nevertheless true that Modi's Hindu credentials have got linked to the Gujarat riots of 2002. This is a reality the BJP must live with. Any apology will undermine Modi's appeal as an uncompromising leader.

The key to building Modi is to relentlessly drive home his ability to take tough decisions which are for the national good. He will have to play on his humble origins and (subtly) even his Most Backward Caste status. Remember, there will be formidable opposition to his claim to be PM. To make Modi win, the BJP will have to look well beyond its traditional voters. We must also assume that apart from Shiv Sena and Akali Dal (and, maybe, AGP), there will be no other allies.

I also agree with those of you who have argued for a Modi-Jaitley combination. I have seen this duo working very effectively in 2002 and 2007. I look forward to the time this team can galvanise the country in 2014.

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"They won all the battles, we had the best songs"*

[* A line from a Communist song from the Spanish Civil War]

Apologies for not writing yesterday. I was busy pontificating on TV and finishing my columns which have appeared in today's Times of India and Pioneer. Then I was out late at night commiserating with some friends in the BJP. My only bit of good news was the spectacular third-term victory of Naveen Patnaik in Orissa. I telephoned him and congratulated him for rewriting the rules of electoral politics.

Anyway, to come back to Election 2009, let me present some blunt home truths:

  • This was a positive vote for the Congress, including Sonia and Rahul.
  • The contribution of Manmohan Singh to the victory was significant. In hindsight, he was the unquestioned winner of the "weak" versus "strong" debate.
  • It was Manmohan's perceived decency that mattered to the electorate.
  • The under-30 youth vote went overwhelmingly in favour of the Congress. The Congress reinvented itself as a party where youth matters; the BJP was seen as hidebound.
  • The media helped project Congress as wholesome; the BJP was seen as ugly. Varun Gandhi may have won Pilibhit but he lost the BJP lakhs of votes nationally.
  • The middle class vote deserted the BJP and gave Congress the extra cutting edge--just see the margins of victory in Delhi.
  • The loan waiver and NREGA helped blunt possible anti-incumbency.
  • People voted by and large on national lines. This was not an aggregate of state elections. There was a national swing in favour of the Congress.
  • In UP, we are seeing the restoration of the Congress coalition which was broken in 1991. Both BJP and BSP are likely to be casualties.

What are the specific lessons for the BJP?

  • The party must recognise that this was a political failure and not merely a defeat caused by management shortcomings.
  • The so-called "Hindu" appeal may work in specific areas (Pilibhit, Mangalore, Azamgarh, Kandhamal, et al) but it is perceived as divisive elsewhere.
  • The ugly face of Hindu extremism puts off the middle ground.
  • There is no such thing as a Hindu consciousness that exists today. The nationalist middle ground has shifted to the Congress.
  • The BJP leadership is seen as completely unresponsive to youth aspirations and modernity.
  • There is a tendency of the BJP to preach to the committed and not reach outwards.
  • In caste terms, we are witnessing a definite drift of the upper castes to the Congress.
  • The OBCs are now the bedrock of the BJP but this has not been formally acknowledged.
  • The RSS-isation of the BJP organisation post-2005 has created serious distortions.
  • The integrity quotient of the BJP is now at par with that of the Congress. This is a problem that the moral guardians of the party have wilfully turned a blind eye to.

What should the BJP do immediately?

  • Recognise the magnitude of defeat and not live in denial (as happened in 2004).
  • There has to be some visible demonstration of the fact that the party has responded to the message. Advani was right to step down and the Parliamentary Board was wrong to reject it. There is still a very important role for Advani but his position is that of a mentor.
  • There has to be a revamp of most state parties. Young, dynamic MLAs and MPs must be given organisational responsibilities.
  • The RSS-non-RSS divide in the party must be bridged. Those who never attended shakhas can't be treated as second-class members.
  • The BJP must focus on the policy debates in the coming two years. Interventions in Parliament must be given due importance. The Leaders of Opposition in both Houses must be chosen accordingly.
  • The party needs to project a modern, cosmopolitan face as national president to woo back the middle classes. What is needed is a picture of wholesome sobriety. The sooner this is done the better.
  • A culture of frankness and debate has to return to the party. The miscalculations resulting from telling the leadership what it wanted to hear were colossal.
  • Modi has to add the OBC tag to his appeal. His pronouncements must become more measured. He has to work on his national acceptability.
  • Stringent norms of fund collection should be set. The private war chests have caused havoc to the functioning of the party.

Of course, there are many more issues that have to be thrashed out. But these are just some initial reactions to a silent wave for the Congress that few of us predicted.

Already I have seen some diagnosis of the debacle on the web. I can only gather that the temptation to fall back on old certitudes has proved irresistible to a few. Which is why I cited the lines from the Spanish Civil War song in the heading.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Management of expectations

There has been considerable bewilderment over the revised CNN-IBN exit poll assessment for Tamil Nadu. Both CNN-IBN and NDTV have predicted a resounding win for the DMK-Congress alliance, even to the tune of 35-4. If true, and read with the predictions for Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Assam, it would suggest that a Congress-led government led by Manmohan Singh is a certainty.

We don't have to wait too long to know whether or not the pollsters are correct or horribly wrong. They have stuck their necks out and, presumably, know what they are doing.

With just 12 hours or so left for the first results, the Congress has created a mood of expectation of its re-election. With the news of Naveen Patnaik's possible neutrality in a confidence vote, the dithering in the Left and rumours of Nitish Kumar's re-think on the NDA, the Congress has fostered the belief that it is on a roll.

As a psychological ploy, this has worked. However, there is a flip side.

Tomorrow morning, the Congress and UPA will be judged not on terms of how it has performed vis a vis 2004 but how it has performed in relation to the exit polls. In short, any marked deviation from its comfortable position in the exit polls is going to become the basis of ascertaining whether it has received an endorsement or has been rejected by the voters.

The BJP and NDA begin tomorrow as complete underdogs. If they perform better, they will seize the moment.

Management of expectations is an integral part of political strategy. The Congress has set for itself very high standards which it must live up to. The alternative is a loss of face.

The Congress has won the exit polls handsomely. Let us observe how it has done in the real polls.

Despite the hype, everyone is running round in circles

If you are to believe the hype on TV, Lutyens' Delhi is humming with activity. Every now and then I receive phone calls asking if X is talking to Y using the good offices of A. A lot of bit players are strutting about the city looking self-important and taking care to get themselves photographed. There are constant meetings and the rumour mills are over-active.

Based on information, my take on events are as follows:

  • The Congress has had some success in soothing the ruffled egos of the Samajwadi Party. Amar Singh is thrilled that Digvijay Singh has said sorry. The SP believes it is going to win at least 25 seats. Its main focus is to regain power in Lucknow but till that happens it will not be unhappy with at least two portfolios like defence for Mulayam and something visible for Amar Singh. The SP has been the most transparent of the groups and we can assume that the 4th Front is in the Congress kitty.
  • The Congress has mounted a full scale psychological offensive aimed at breaking the Third Front. The Third Front partners are still unwilling to budge because they feel that the Congress will perform poorly (despite the exit polls). There is still a big hope that a beleaguered Congress will be forced to bolster a Third Front Government for the moment.
  • Despite Rahul's bravado, Sonia wants to be sure that no BJP-led government is formed. She will do everything to prevent it. Her first priority is a Congress-led government but if push comes to shove she will make yet another sacrifice for secularism.
  • Prakash Karat's future in the CPI(M) hierarchy will depend on his ability to keep the Third Front together. If the Congress-TMC coalition does very well in West Bengal, the Bengal unit will want to strike an open deal with the Congress and ensure the TMC walks out. Already some, like Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, are openly advocating Left support for the Congress. The wicked people in Delhi say that Somnath is in line for a diplomatic assignment to an European country where they speak English, in case the Congress is back at the helm.
  • The possibility of the TMC joining the NDA is almost zero.There is a Muslim veto.
  • The Third Front will face difficulties in naming a leader. There are too many conflicting pulls.
  • Jayalalitha's nightmare is a split verdict in Tamil Nadu. She wants a clean sweep and bargain with the Congress to bring down the DMK Government in Chennai.
  • The BJP has made little headway in its bid to build a Greater NDA. Its hope lies in a good electoral performance on Saturday which will dilute its untouchability. But it will still need the Congress to sit in the opposition before its claims become credible.
  • In case there is a hung Assembly in Orissa, Naveen Patnaik's first choice will be the Congress. He wants a stake at the Centre but has developed a block about the BJP. His first priority is still the Third Front but he has shed his distaste of the Congress. He will be dictated by the Assembly results.

In short, there has been a lot of tentative positioning. But everyone is looking to the final numbers game to firm up their stands. Existing calculations can go awry and new equations may be forged by the results.

Update 1: There has been some concern over Nitish Kumar's comments about being receptive to any one who gives a special status to Bihar. Regardless of the interpretation given by a gloating NDTV and CNN-IBN, I have seen nothing as yet to indicate a U-turn. Just see how quickly a Congress spokesman advised Nitish to desist from making demands through the media. Nitish follows the norms of political etiquette; he doesn't desert a team even before he knows the verdict of the people.

Update 2: Just came from an end-of-campaign party hosted at the BJP "war room" in Tugluq Crescent, New Delhi. There were lots of young men and women who interacted with Advani. The nice thing was that Advani underlined the need to harness this enthusiasm for the future. Regardless of the results, the BJP needs lots of new blood into the formal institutions of the party. The modern thinking that was evident in the campaign must remain in the party's bloodstream. At the same time, care must be taken to not appear elitist.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A technical critique of exit polls

Arun Narendranath, one of the most avid followers of elecoral trends, sent me this email. I am taking the liberty of posting it:

Read ur blog just now. Spot on in saying that four states of AP, Maha, Assam & UP have not been analyzed properly. Lets try and explain the flaws here

Assumption: the voteshare estimates by these TV channels have not been fudged. (though this may not be true).

AP:

Let for once assume that vote share given by CNN IBN is correct in the state of AP.

INC: 42%

TDP+: 25 + 5%

PRP: 14%

Now converting the same into regional trends.

In Telanagana it would convert into

INC: 40%

Mahakuttami: 45%

In Costa region:

East & West Godavari districts:

INC: 35%

PRP: 35-40%

TDP: 20-24%

Krishna Districts:

INC: 35%

TDP+: 37-38%

PRP: 27-30%

and finally in Rayalseema:

INC: 55%

PRP:15%

TDP: 20-25%

This would translate into the following number of seats:

INC: 15-17

MIM:1

TRS:6-7

TDP: 12-14

PRP: 3

TDP & TRS will get their seats mostly from the Telangana region. TDP will get the additional seats in Krishna district (seats like Vijayawada, Srikakulam). PRP will do well in Nasarpur, Kakinada. INC will sweep Rayalseema (by huge margins) & win about 20-30% seats in costa & Telangana. This effect has been clearly captured by vernacular media(read the predictions of MAA & Itv, Shakshi is owned by YSR's Son). The attached file will clear show how the English media has completely mis-interpreted when the vernacular media caught the trend.

Bottomline: Even if Mr. Babu is not inclined towards BJP/NDA most of his MPs would be. Because they would be mostly from the Telangana region and would have won the election because of the T-Sentiment. If TDP does not come to NDA its worth buying them with Mr. Badal's money bag.

Maharashtra:

a) Though UPA can make marginal gains in Vidharba & Maratwada, they will loose seats in Mumbai & Thane, Western Maharashtra.

b) The MNS has done extremely well in 3 seats Thane, Nashik & Mumbai-North East (NCP will win in Thane & Nashik because MNS played the spoiler). Though they polled very well in Mum NE, it is difficult to upset Kirit. The assumption that MNS has damaged NDA across the state is false. Their effect was restricted to 3-4 seats.

c) The most interesting factor the exit polls have missed in Maharashtra was the internal conflict between NCP & INC. There were several rebel candidate in the fray from both INC & NCP. Though NCP was in alliance with INC, all its cadres were sabotaging the prospects of INC candidates and vis-versa. For instance in Pune, Mr. Sharad Pawar was campaigning hard for Mr. Kalmadi but his nephew Mr. Ajit Pawar was indirectly supporting Mr. Anil Shirole of BJP. This is very similar to bradley effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley_effect). The NCP voter pressed the button against the lotus when they claimed they would do so against the hand. The bradley effect will be found in the following seats.

Pune. Latur, Nanded, Osmanabad, Nagpur, Ahmed Nagar (INC sabotaging NCP) and to an extent in Shiradi, Mumbai NC.

Bottomline: Though the voteshare given to UPA is too high, some explaination can be found in bradley effect, that is why Mr. Ashok Chavan & Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh want to go alone in assembly election and the NCP wants to go with SHS or MNS (reports of Mr. pawar calling Uddav in London & Mr. Jayant Patil meeting Mr. Raj Thackery)

UP:

Gallagher effect is missed by the media groups. They did the same mistake in Karnataka assembly elections, they are doing so now in the UP electoral trends.

Bottomline: Expect in Phase I & IV of UP polls (were BJP did extremely well across seats), in all other phases BJP has done well only in pockets depending on the candidates. For instance Phase II ( Ambedkar Nagar, Faizabad), Phase III (Kanpur, Balaun) Phase V (Anola, Philibit & to an extent in Moradabad). Usually BJP's vote share is consistent across the state, but not so in this election.

Finally Mr. Mahesh Rangarajan has converted the voteshare of BSP:29%, Sp:23%, BJP+: 21% & INC: 18% into 28, 22, 17 & 13 seats. The difference is that INC has consistently got 15-18% votes across the state peaking at very few places, whereas BJP has seesawed between 30% (winning seats) & 15%(decimated seats). This leads to Gallagher effect and more seats to BJP.

Regards,

Arun Narendhranath

On Thu, May 14, 2009 at 4:04 PM, Arun Narendhranath wrote:

Two important points ignored by Psephologist

a) Most of the exit polls are converting state wise trends into seats. Expect Tamil Nadu none of the larger states are monolithic in their voting pattern. The classic example is converting higher voteshare of INC in Rayalseema region to seats across AP.

b) Gallagher effect is also missed by the media groups. They did the same mistake in Karnataka assembly elections, they are doing so now in the UP electoral trends.

For more info read about Gallagher Index @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallagher_Index

These are the two points you can use while attending TV debates on Exit Polls.

Regards,

Arun Narendhranath

Exit polls confusion

The spate of exit polls and post polls have only deepened the confusion over the political future of India. Exit polls, unfortunately, don't have a healthy track record. They have erred even in small states such as Gujarat, Karnataka and Punjab.

However, even if we assume that pollsters have been more diligent on this occasion, there are some concerns.

Following delimitation of constituencies, there is no base figure for the pollsters. This can lead to projection errors, even if we assume that the sampling exercise is in order.

The important thing is to look at broad trends and the direction of the vote rather than the seat projections. Now, all the pollsters are clear that the Congress will do well in Kerala, Orissa, Delhi and Punjab. They are equally clear that the BJP has the upper hand in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Orissa.

The Uttar Pradesh situation is, at the best of times, confused. It is a nightmare trying to predict seats on the basis of four and five cornered fights. We should just note that both BJP and Congress appear to have done well. The Congress has been bolstered by Muslim bloc voting in its favour in Phase Five.

We should wait till Saturday to find out how the trends have translated into results.

But there are four states where there is no agreement among pollsters over the direction of the vote. These states are Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Assam.

In all these four states, NDTV and CNN-IBN have been extremely generous to the Congress. They see the popular mood in its favour. In Tamil Nadu, they see a halfway divide.

These are contentious conclusions and go against the grain of other polls. I expect the Congress to lose seats in all these four states.

If NDTV and CNN-IBN are right, the Congress and UPA emerge on top. If they are even half off the mark, the advantage shifts to the BJP and NDA.

I thank the pollsters for keeping the interest in the real vote intact. We should be glued to the TV from 8am. We should be able to gauge the trends by 10.30 am and know the outcome by 2.30pm.

I am going to be busy with TV and my commissioned articles that day. No blogs till late night.

Postscript:

Arun Jaitley regalled some of us with a very funny anecdote about opinion polls.

During the Punjab Assembly polls of 2007, he was quite disturbed by the fact that there was such a striking mismatch between his private assessments and the opinion polls. His polls suggested a clear BJP-Akali advantage while the familiar pundits gave the Congress a clear 5 per cent lead (which they brought down to a 1 per cent lead in the exit polls).

Finally, he was thrilled to see a poll in a Punjab paper which gave a small lead to the NDA. He expressed his happiness about it to a senior Akali leader.

"Yes, you should be happy," replied the earthy politician, "I spent one crore organising it."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lull before the count

On the surface, it was just another summer day in Delhi. The ancien regime strutted about the city in the firm belief that everything was hunky dory. A new Finance Secretary was appointed by the government; the Chief Election Commissioner unveiled a film at The Oberoi produced by the EC and made by a lady whose sister is part of Sonia Gandhi's inner circle; and Minority Commission member Dileep Padgaonkar made a seamless switch from being a dedicated panelist on Times Now to becoming a pundit on CNN-IBN. To the beautiful people, it was just a question of waiting till Saturday afternoon for the Congress to reassume the reins of power.

"Was the nuclear deal discussed during the campaign?" a businessman asked me at lunch. I was left speechless. Clearly, I didn't belong to the world inhabited by the beautiful people.

But underneath the placid surface there were strong undercurrents. Early this evening I received a call from one of the top analysts of a big merchant bank. He was trying to make sense of today's staggering 4 per cent jump in the Sensex. It seems that the rally was triggered by a rumour that the NDA was going to form the government. One evening paper in Mumbai even published a so-called IB assessment that the BJP-Sena would win 28 of the 40 seats in Maharashtra. "Is this likely?" he asked me.

Wait for Saturday, I advised him. In case he was impatient, I told him to check tomorrow's exit poll results. I understand there are two planned and I understand that two of these are going to show the Congress emerging as the largest party quite comfortably. The editor of an English-language daily has told his staff that he expects the Congress tally at 170.

If the Congress reaches 170, Manmohan may as well get ready to be sworn in next week. But how come this optimism isn't shared by the so-called High Command? H.R. Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) tried to cover his face while entering 10 Janpath for a private audience with the Empress. On TV, Jayanthi Natarajan argued that the cameras had no right to be so intrusive.

The BJP meanwhile is appearing a bit too cocky and over-confident. As part of his PR, Advani has produced a volume of the interviews he gave during the campaign. Some silly BJP "sources" have also spread wild stories about a "crack team" conducting negotiations for a "greater NDA". It's all very dubious.

The rally in Ludhiana, the leader of a NDA party told me on Monday, was good "but the audience was sullen". Was it a sign of the mood in Punjab?

Meanwhile, Amar Singh is angry with the Congress over its complicity in the denigration of Jayapradha by Azam Khan in Rampur. Some disgusting morphed pictures of the Telugu film star is being circulated in Rampur--Amar Singh claims that this misdeed has the full backing of the Congress. I went to the Pioneer office and asked if any of the women's groups have come out against this denigration of a woman. None, I was told. Why hasn't the TV channels asked Begum Noor Bano of the Congress to explain? Is it because the Congress owes no explanations?

In the lane opposite the Pioneer offices, A.B. Bardhan of the CPI was delighting everyone with his acerbic wit. He railed against the monopoly press--rhetoric we haven't heard in a long time.

It was just another hot day in Delhi. The predicted storm is four days away.

Postscript: Pieces of revealing trivia that came my way this morning:

  • The news about Kumaraswamy meeting Sonia Gandhi was leaked to the media by the Congress itself. A top aide of the Congress president personally contacted many TV channels with the prior information that left the JD(S) embarrassed.
  • Some Congress people are of the belief that the CPI(M) will not only vote out the Karat line on May 18 but that Karat will be removed as general secretary of the party.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Looking beyond MMS




For the past 24 hours, the political grapevine in Lutyens' Delhi has been buzzing with the news that the Congress is readying with an alternative to Manmohan Singh. The assumption is that if the Congress doesn't perform too well, it must be ready with a name who can command more support than a Third Front candidate. More particularly the Congress wants someone who can out-Pawar Sharad Pawar.

The name doing the rounds is the ever-faithful Sushil Kumar Shinde from Sholapur. Shinde fulfills all the criteria:

  • He is unquestioningly loyal to the owners of the Congress Party
  • Coming from Maharashtra, he can undercut Pawar's Marathi manush claims. Maybe the Shiv Sena will support him (or not oppose him).
  • He is a Dalit and the Third Front parties will not risk opposing a Dalit. The Congress can hog the credit for being the party that installed the first Dalit PM.

The detractors say that Shinde is a non-starter. They point to an emerging controversy arising out of Pune (this part is deliberately cryptic as I have no means of checking the credibility of scurrilous whispers).

Politically, the floating of Shinde's name suggests that there is a powerful section of the Congress that will not abdicate the post of Prime Minister at any cost.

Let us see if other names emerge in the next four days.

Postscript: MMS isn't going to yield ground so easily. He and his supporters believe that the Congress has secured a lot of incremental middle class votes in the metros (particularly Delhi) because of his "benign" presence. There is also a feeling that he has added to the pro-Congress mood in Punjab. But the Left is implacably hostile to him. This may explain his "forgive and forget" overture to the Left on the final day of campaigning.

Tremors from Ludhiana

modi nitish

As propaganda exercises go, the NDA rally in Ludhiana was a roaring success. The rally achieved three purposes:

  • It scotched all speculation of a rift in the NDA even before the results are out. The Narendra Modi-Nitish Kumar photo-op in particular was good piece of showmanship. NDTV was particularly agitated and made it appear that Nitish's main crime was to have reneged on an assurance to Barkha Dutt. However, I don't think that Nitish was too happy over being ambushed by Modi--such public displays are not his style.
  • The symbolic presence of the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti, hitherto a part of the Third Front, suggested that the NDA's ability to draw in post-poll allies shouldn't be underestimated. However, don't take the TRS presence as constituting the last word.
  • The show of unity by the NDA was in sharp contrast to the perceived disarray in the UPA. There was an implicit message to other Third Front partners, notably TDP and AIADMK. The Muslim factor in West Bengal rules out Mamata Banerjee joining NDA, although she may ditch Congress if it cosies up to the Left again.

The BJP is wallowing in the euphoria of Ludhiana. It hopes the momentum will help it in Punjab and UP in the fifth phase of voting. The NDA needs to desperately recover ground in Punjab and consolidate gains in the Bareilly-Rohilkhand belt of UP. In the next two days, the BJP is planning two new advertisements.

  • The first, a brainchild of Narendra Modi, commemorates the 11th anniversary of the Pokhran-2 tests and showcases decisiveness in government.
  • The visual of the BJP manifesto advertisement has been modified to make it into an NDA appeal. Sharad Yadav has apparently given his go-ahead.

The Congress hasn't been sitting idle either. It has undertaken a few initiatives with an eye on post-poll arithmetic:

  • Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have not only cancelled their visits to West Bengal for the fifth phase but taken care to let it be known that this constitutes an overture to the Left. Mamata Banerjee is furious but she will hold her peace till voting is over.
  • The CPI(M) has been persuaded to soften its stand and agree in principle to approach the May 18 Politburo meeting with an open mind. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has said nice things about Somnath Chatterjee who was expelled from the CPI(M) for his opposition to the withdrawal of support to Manmohan last July. The CPI(M) hopes that keeping speculation alive could lead to a partial neutralisation of the Congress in the fifth phase in West Bengal--all the seats in that phase are being contested by the Trinamool. The CPI, incidentally, is not too happy with the perceived softening of the CPI(M).
  • Congress has gone out of its way to remove apprehensions in the DMK over the future. Congress candidates in Tamil Nadu were fearing that after Rahul's press conference and the cancellation of a Sonia meeting, the DMK cadres would not work for the success of P.Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Both these Cabinet ministers have made very strong anti-Jayalalitha statements, calculated to make the lady furious. Has the Congress pushed Jayalalitha to the NDA?

There is not much both parties can do in the next few days after Wednesday's polling but await Saturday's counting. All they can do is keep rapid response teams in place once the numbers are known.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The trends and the imponderables

Judging from many of the comments to earlier blogs on the four phases of polling and from observations in other blogs, it would seem that there is an impression that I have been foolish enough to predict the results of the general elections.

This is not the case.

I have merely collated the views and assessments of pollsters, officials and strategists in the political parties. The tally of 196 for the NDA and 147 for the UPA (till the end of the 4th phase) was an estimate by a pollster who has actually conducted exit polls for the BJP. His estimates may turn out to be right or wrong but they are his estimates. I am merely reporting his findings.

There are other estimates too. Senior functionaries of the Congress believe that the party will win anything between 155 to 160 seats against 125 to 130 for the BJP. Ironically, this is the exact reverse of BJP's estimates (155 to 160 for itself and 125 to 130 for the Congress).

Obviously both can't be right.

There are too many imponderables involved. I want to list some:

  • The BJP feels it can retain one of the two Arunachal Pradesh seats it won in 2004. The two MPs may well be popular but has the party got the ability to take on the official machinery in a state where voting stations are far flung?
  • The BJP seems a bit too cocksure about its Karnataka performance. I know for a fact that at least two of its candidates in potentially winnable seats didn't even campaign and more or less conceded the seats to the Congress. Again, no one knows how the heavy polling in Mangalore and the low turnout in Bangalore will affect the outcome.
  • There was large-scale internal sabotage by the BJP itself in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. Will this impact on the outcome?
  • The Congress and NCP tacitly supported Independents against each other. Will this count? Raj Thackeray drew very large crowds in his election meetings. Will this translate into votes?
  • Orissa reports great support for Naveen Patnaik at the Assembly level and goodwill for the BJP at the Lok Sabha level. Will the voters be so discerning?
  • Delhi reported an above average middle class turnout in the middle class areas and a below average polling in slum and minority clusters. Conventional wisdom suggests that this could benefit the BJP but in the Assembly polls the middle class colonies were equally divided between Congress and BJP.
  • Candidates from smaller Muslim parties polled well in pockets in the first two phases in Uttar Pradesh. By the third phase, Muslims were leaning towards the Congress. Has the Congress got the ability to convert additional votes into seats.
  • Journalistic asessments from Bihar speak of mass antipathy for Lalu and Paswan. Yet, pollsters feel the RJD and LJP will hold on to 10 seats at least. Are they being too conservative?
  • The mood in the tea shops and addas seems very anti-CPI(M) in West Bengal. Will this be enough to overcome the formidable Left machinery? Will the Congress undermine the Trinamool in some seats, and vice-versa?
  • Pollsters tend to seriously underestimate the BSP outside (and even within) Uttar Pradesh. Remember, this is also a prestige fight for Mayawati. She wants an all-India role.

We are at present only talking of the results, particularly the Congress-BJP fight for number one position. Government formation will be influenced by who is perceived to have done well on May 16. If Congress stalwarts, say Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram, lose their seats, the Congress will find it difficult to grab the moral space for the next stage. This is as true for the BJP. A bad CPI(M) performance in West Bengal will puncture Karat; a good showing will increase the prospects of a Third Front-led government.

But government formation is still a different ball game. There will be shadowy figures who will emerge in Delhi on May 16.

The NDA has a realistic chance of forming a government if one of the two conditions are met:

  • The NDA wins at least 200 seats on May 16. Even then it will be a daunting task because the BJP is an innocent in the game of striking deals. But at least numbers will give it a momentum.
  • A dejected Congress announces by the evening of May 16 that it has decided to sit in the Opposition.

We can keep doing our sums but parties will act in their own political self-interest only after they know their numbers. The TRS presence in Ludhiana was a morale booster for the NDA. But don't see it as a trend as yet.

Finally, there is the one imponderable the NDA dreads: the possible role of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pumpkin republic


Fr. Cedric Prakash, photographed here receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d’ Honneur Award from the French Ambassador in New Delhi on 14th July 2006, is well known in some circles as a resolute defender of "human rights" in Gujarat.

In June, a delegation from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is scheduled to visit India. The team will travel to Gujarat and Orissa. Fr Prakash had testified before USCIRF in June 2002 after the Gujarat riots.

The idea of a US body investigating religious freedom in India is a bit disturbing. Fr Prakash's take on the subject is, however, fascinating.

In the Mail Today of May 8, 2009, page 9, he is quoted as saying:

(Narendra) Modi cannot nurture prime ministerial dreams unless he is acceptable to the Western world.

Fr. Prakash does himself proud with such an honest articulation of his beliefs.

Postscript (May 10, 12noon) : I could not believe my ears but the indefatigable Mani Shankar Aiyar has just compared Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ on NDTV!

Nerves, nerves and nerves



The best comment I heard this morning on the sacking of the irascible Veerappa Moily and the soft-spoken Ashwani Kumar was: "In the Congress, only Rahul Gandhi has the right to make a fool of himself."

Perhaps Moily overdid things by suggesting that Nitish Kumar has an inflated opinion of himself but this was not an unparliamentary comment. It was part of the usual cut and thrust of electioneering.

How was Moily or any Congress spokesman supposed to handle the Rahul-created mess? Just look at the contradictory signals:

  • On Tuesday, Rahul baba says "Mr Nitish", Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalitha are not so bad after all. He also asks for Left support to Manmohan Singh. Predictably, the existing allies of the Congress are furious; Mamata threatens to walk out and Paswan asks why Congress has put up candidates against JD(U).
  • By Wednesday, the Congress begins a damage limitation exercise but continues sending contradictory signals. It tells Mamata that the alliance is intact but Sonia cancels visit to Tamil Nadu. The JD(U) meanwhile deploys all its forces (including N.K. Singh) to disabuse the claim that Nitish will switch sides.
  • On Thursday, the Congress deploys Prithviraj Chauhan for an "off the record" media briefing at the AICC. Chauhan says that Congress is looking at "strategic abstentions" to see its minority government through. This is just after Moily says Congress will win 180 seats on its own.
  • On Friday, Rahul Gandhi sheds tears for the Lankan Tamils. He is silent on Jayalalitha but P.Chidambaram calls her communal. At the AICC briefing, Kapil Sibal says Congress is moving towards a 200 seat tally. He can't understand the mood of disbelief among the journos. Lalu and Paswan stay away from the Cabinet meet. To placate Lalu, the EC sends teams to probe "irregularities" in Bihar, three weeks after voting!
  • On Saturday morning, Moily is removed for attacking Nitish. Paswan says Sonia Gandhi must clarify matters by speaking to him and Lalu.

An election campaign is also all about nerves. The Congress is conveying the impression it has lost its. It is trying to please every potential ally and ending up looking desperate. To use Ronen Sen's phrase, the party is running about like a "headless chicken".

Those who are in the know of things in the Congress say that, far from being chastened by his gaffes, Rahul and the brat pack believe they have mounted a very successful psy-op to confuse the enemy. Sonia is not known to take decisions; the babalogs are calling the shots. They believe that the Trust Vote success can be replicated after May 16.

Either they are right or the rest of us are all fools.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fourth phase cliffhanger


The Congress has been waiting for some good news to emerge from the different phases of voting. I believe that the 4th phase has given the party its first piece of good news.

The question is: has it gained sufficiently to be the single largest party? As yet, it does not seem so.

Let us look at the trends (I am afraid I don't have enough data or credible reports from West Bengal as yet):

  • The quantitative reports from Delhi indicate a clean sweep by the Congress. Reports say the BJP appears to be putting up a fight in New Delhi and , against heavy odds, in Chandni Chowk and South Delhi. There are reports of heavy Sikh voting for Congress in West Delhi. However, there was also a very heavy middle class turnout and indifferent turnout in the Muslim quarters of Old Delhi (but heavy Muslim voting in East Delhi). This has given the BJP a small glimmer of hope. I feel the Assembly results may be replicated in the Lok Sabha and it will be 6-1 for the Congress. If these reports turn out to be true, the BJP should reflect on the wisdom of keeping its old Delhi leadership intact.
  • The BJP-RLD alliance has performed extremely well in western UP. Its vote share may be as much as 32 per cent which, in multi-cornered contests, could mean a total of between 8 and10 seats in the 4th phase.
  • Reports suggest that the Congress and BJP polled almost equally in Rajasthan. One possible outcome is 11 seats for both Congress and BJP, 1 for CPI(M) and 2 for others (Buta Singh and Kirori Lal Meena). The maximum forecast for Congress is 13 out of 25.
  • The BSP and Bhajan Lal's party took large chunks of votes in Haryana from the Congress. This has put a weak BJP-INLD alliance in the fight. Estimates are Congress 5 to 6, BJP-INLD 3 to 4, BSP 1 and maybe 1 for Bhajan Lal's party.
  • Four seats polled in Punjab in phase 4. A resurgent Congress may be able to pick up anything between 2 and 3. The Akali Dal may hold on to Bhatinda. The Dera Suchha Sauda has come out in full force for the Congress.
  • There were three Bihar seats polling. It is likely to be BJP-JD(U) 2, RJD 1. Lalu looks like getting through narrowly.
  • The Trinamool Congress workers were very aggressive in Midnapore but overall, the Left feels it is making a dent in Congress strongholds. I am informed that it will be touch and go for Pranab Mukherjee.

At this stage the BJP still looks like emerging the single largest party. One IB estimate received late last night says BJP 147, Congress 139. This may explain the stream of overtures from the Congress to the Left.

A pollster whose conclusions are contrarian (but often accurate) says that of the 457 seats polled to date, the projections are: BJP 154 and allies 42, Congress 123 and (pre-poll allies) 24. This makes it NDA 196, UPA 147.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Karat is smiling

karat The most interesting feature of the election campaign being fought in the media (it's markedly different in the ground) is the speculation over how the Left will behave after May 16.

Will it forget its campaign rhetoric and re-discover "common space" with the Congress, as Rahul Gandhi hopes? Alternatively, will it turn the heat on the Congress to support a Third Front Government?

The pro-Congress TV channels are getting increasingly desperate. They have discovered fissures between an intransigent Prakash Karat and a flexible Sitaram Yechuri. Significance is being attached to the CPI(M) politburo meeting on May 18. On CNN-IBN, Sagarika Ghose suggested that the Left would bear the responsibility for a Hindutva government led by L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi. On Times Now, Outlook editor Vinod Mehta revealed that talks between the Congress and CPI(M) over government formation has already begun!

Pranab Mukherjee indicated last evening that he may not even be averse to having another look at the Indo-US nuclear agreement. With each passing day pressure is going to mount on the CPI(M) to cave in to the Congress, after extracting policy concessions. There may even be pressure from a dragon across the Himalayas and the Islamic lobby.

My own take on the subject is totally different. Those close to the CPI(M) leadership are very clear that there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY the party will endorse a Congress Prime Minister--not Manmohan Singh and not Pranab Mukherjee. This position is even more enthusiastically backed by the CPI, RSP and FB.

It would rather sit in the opposition.

Karat would have to be ousted in a central committee coup for the old Harkishen Singh Surjeet line to prevail.

The CPI(M) believes that its pre-poll Third Front will cumulatively have more seats than the Congress. It feels that Sharad Pawar, Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan will join this initiative. If the enlarged Third Front numbers fall below that of the Congress, its efficacy will be undermined.

If the Congress muscles its way into having Manmohan Singh sworn in as PM, the Left will probably vote against it, if possible bring it down in 13 days and then have another government--led by a compromise choice--sworn in. The Left wants Congress to support the Third Front from outside. However, they may compromise by agreeing to Congress participation in a UPA Government led by a non-Congress PM.

If the Congress finds that it cannot have its PM, the family may decide to sit in the opposition. That would make a NDA Government inevitable.

The exact course will be known after the results come in. On the ground, the Left Front in West Bengal is making the most of the Congress' overtures. The growing suspicion between the Congress and Mamata as a result of this may lead to the Left recovering ground in some of the marginals that vote in the 5th phase.

When the election was announced, the Left was fearful of crossing 30 seats. It is now hopeful of crossing 40.

Karat is smiling because the Left is once again back in the centre stage. Will he still be smiling if the BJP emerges as the number one party? Karat has assumed that BJP no longer poses any significant challenge.

If Karat is proved wrong, we may see a very different ball game with the Bengal party flexing its muscle.

[My assessment of Phase 4 will, hopefully, be ready on Friday evening/ Saturday morning]

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bitter battle in Rajasthan

Rajasthan, a top BJP strategist told me this morning, will determine whether we sit in government or in the opposition. I think the same is true for the Congress--whether it leads the next government or plays second fiddle.

The Congress has ploughed in some Rs 300 crores into the campaign in the state. There are a handful of Rahul's babalog friends who are also contesting.

The BJP campaign started on a wrong note with Vasundhara Raje retreating into her son's constituency in protest against what she has reportedly called "the sale of a seat" to a Thakur. She is now back in the campaign but there are too many inter-personal tensions in the BJP. Modi's rallies were exceptionally well attended but the Gujarat CM is not in the larger calculation.

The Congress is fighting a national campaign. The BJP, however, has chosen to make it a local battle against Ashok Gehlot. Some of the BJP animation films targeting Gehlot were extremely funny and hard hitting. The EC took them off TV.

I am giving below an assessment, made late last night, by a top bureaucrat who is very well clued into the state. This is his assessment, not mine

SEATWISE

1. BIKANER, BJP

2. CHURU, BJP

3. JHUNJHUNU, BJP WITH EDGE.

4. GANGANAGAR, BJP TO LOSE DUE TO CANDIDATE NIHAL CHAND

5. BHARATPUR, BJP EDGE

6. TONK-SAWAIMADHOPUR, BJP

7. ALWAR, CONG AHEAD DUE TO ANTI-YADAV FORMATION AGAINST BJP

8. JAIPUR, BJP

9, JAIPUR RURAL, BJP

10. SIKAR, BJP TO LOSE, JATS AGAINST THE CANDIDATE

11. AJMER, CONG WELL AHEAD

12. NAGAUR, BJP TO LOSE DUE TO NATHURAM MIRDHA'S GRANDDAUGHTER

13. BHILWARA, CONGRESS EDGE, SITTING BJP CANDIDATE LINKED TO THAKURWAD

14. JODHPUR, IS TOUGH TO PREDICT AS JATS ARE WITH THE BJP CANDIDATE BUT CM IS SPENDING ALL HIS TIME

15. BARMER, BJP WILL LOSE EVEN THOUGH MANAVENDRA SINGH HAS COMPROMISED WITH SONA RAM CHOUDHARY, JASWANT'S PLOT TO REMOVE ERSTWHILE MINISTER GANGACHARAN FROM VASU GOVT STILL RANCKLES

16. PALI, BJP

17. JALORE, TOUGH TO PREDICT, FIGHT BETWEEN BUTA AND BJP

18, UDAIPUR, CONGRESS AHEAD

19. BANSWARA, CONGRESS AHEAD

20. RAJASAMUND, BJP TO WIN

21. KOTA, BJP IS UP

22. JHALAWAR, BJP WITH LOW MARGIN

23. DAUSA, INDEPENDENT K. L MEENA WILL WIN IF BJP TRANSFERS ITS VOTE

24. DHOLPUR-KAROLI : NOT KNOWN

25. CHITTOR, BJP TO LOSE

I will keep you posted after Phase 4.

Rahul: Oh so clever


Rahul Gandhi has had to bow to his party's sensibilities and tell the whole world that the Congress will not sit in opposition.

The U-turn at Tuesday morning's press conference was prompted by alarm in Congress circles that the heir apparent was abandoning the fight midway. In deference to Congress wishes, Rahul indulged in some bravado: Manmohan Singh will be PM after May 16 and BJP has given up the fight.

If Rahul had stuck to the campaign speech script, he would have done his job. He tried to be too clever by half and ended up confusing his party even more.

  • He said that he had ideological differences with the Left but could work with them. "I am sure the Left will support Manmohan Sigh as PM." He discovered a reasonable amount of "common space" with the Left.
  • He said that a lot of opposition leaders have done good work. He named Chandrababu Naidu and "Mr Nitish". Why did he leave poor Naveen Patnaik out?

The outcome of his first attempt at realpolitik has been laughable.

  • He has conceded that the Andhra results have been bad for Congress. Hence the certificate to Naidu.
  • He has left Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan high and dry even before polling is over in Bihar.
  • He has ditched Mamata Bannerjee by holding out an olive leaf to the Left. She is apparently furious. I learn that the forthcoming joint meetings with Sonia and Rahul may not happen.She has told Indian Express that if the Congress reforges any alliance with the CPI(M), she is out.
  • The Congress is giving the impression of being an unreliable ally.
  • Rahul's national security doctrine: "Empower the villagers and terrorism will end in 15 minutes". Now, why did no one think of this before?
  • The CPI(M) is jubilant. It sees Rahul baba's hand of friendship as proof that it holds the final veto. It is also thrilled that the Congress-TMC alliance is coming unstuck even before the polls are over.It has raised its expectations from 30 (at the start of the campaign) to 45 seats. Karat's own hands within the party have been strengthened.
  • The BJP is thrilled that the Congress is nervous. It is concentrating single-mindedly on picking up every possible seat. There is a healthy unity in the BJP I haven't seen in a long time.
  • Just after the press conference, Nitish decided that it was time to scotch the speculation once and for all. He told his circle (which included one gentlemen who was the "source" of all the speculation about a JD(U)-Congress tie-up, that he saw no reason to ditch the BJP at this juncture. It was after that its spokesman Shivanand Tiwari appeared on various channels. Nitish and Arun Jaitley also decided on a common "thank you but no thank you" response to Rahul's praise of the Bihar government.

I can't predict what effect Rahul's pronouncements will have on Phase 4 voting. But it seems to me that Rahul is making the same mistake Sharad Pawar did: concentrating on post-poll games even before the voters have done their job. I wonder why Pawar is so quiet now.

Of course I am ignoring the gush-gushness of the TV groups who were beneficiaries of a Rs 400-crore bailout package by the Financial Institutions last week.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Congress threat to sit in Opposition


I alluded to Rahul Gandhi's "off the record" briefing to political editors in my earlier blog. The Congress chose to make the gist of this conversation public on Sunday. The were three significant points of this intervention:

  • The Congress would insist on Manmohan Singh as the next PM. In short, it would not agree to either another leader or a Third Front or Sharad Pawar-led government. He said that his mother agreed with making Manmohan's position non-negotiable.
  • Rahul said he was not looking at the next 15 days but the next 15 years.
  • He said that the Congress had done well and was hoping to do well in Kerala, Orissa, Chhattisgrarh, Punjab and Rajasthan. It is significant that he omitted Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

Apart from the first point where the Congress signals that it will not yield to Third Front pressure, there is nothing particularly upbeat about Rahul's pronouncements. It is not the sort of statement a party issues in the middle of an election.

What does it amount to?

At the risk of over-interpretation, I would suggest that Rahul is setting the stage for an indifferent Congress performance on May 16. He is trying to occupy a high moral ground to gloss over possible tactical blunders and an unsatisfactory performance.

More important, he is playing a game of brinkmanship with Prakash Karat. He is suggesting that in case the Third Front remains intransigent on a Manmohan-led government, the Congress may be willing to sit in opposition and allow a government with BJP involvement.

The calculation is that "secular" forces will put pressure on the Left and the Third and Fourth Fronts to see reason. There are too many game plans that will be upset if the Congress shies away from leading the government and upholds abstract principles.

There will also be sustained international pressure.

I don't believe that either the Congress and Left have uttered the last word. Both are waiting for the final figures. But Rahul has indicated clearly that he doesn't mind if the Congress sits in Opposition. Digvijay Singh has said so quite explicitly. Will the rest of his party agree?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Third phase confusion





The gradually shrinking turnout figures--with a direct correlation to the rising mercury--is making it very difficult to say anything concrete about the outcome in terms of seats.

Moreover, in this phase there appears to be a sharp mismatch between those who have gathered quantitative data and those who rely on more conventional journalistic methods.

Where there is a conflict of conclusions I have given both views:

  • In Madhya Pradesh there is no question that the BJP has won a majority of seats. The exit pollster says it is a conclusive victory and that the BJP tally will improve over 2009. Some party activists whose views are generally reliable aren't that optimistic. They see a definite slippage in the Malwa region and final tally of BJP 20 and Congress 9.
  • The same confusion prevails as far as Karnataka is concerned. The pollsters who rely on actual exit polls say that it is a conclusive BJP victory verging on a clean sweep. Journalists who were there on polling day say that heavy voting by Muslims and Christians will see a BJP defeat in the Mangalore belt (a similar trend was reported earlier from Bangalore), This fear is shared by some senior BJP leaders too. However, the pollsters are adamant that the Congress performance has been dismal.
  • There is relatively less confusion in Uttar Pradesh. There is a consensus that Congress has done very well in Phase 3 and may win seats it has not won since 1984. It has received silent but en masse Muslim support in constituencies such as Lucknow and it has picked up Dalit and upper-caste votes too. However, it is unlikely that this will translate into victories in more than 2 to 3 seats in this phase since the party proceeds from a very low base. The BJP on the other hand may pick up anything between 3 and 5 seats in this phase. Its popular vote is thought to be fractionally below that of the BSP and SP. Like in Phase 2 the SP may be the big loser (although by way of caution let me add that a similar prognosis turned out to be unfounded in both 1999 and 2004). The BSP is picking up seats steadily but the overall tally is nowhere commensurate with what Mayawati won in 2007.
  • Apart from NDTV which is forecating a decisive 30-18 win for the Congress-NCP, other pollsters are predicting exactly the opposite result. In the 10 seats of Phase 3, the most generous tally for the Congress is 5 seats. The overall impression is one of a 50:50 divide with the BJP-SS having an advantage in terms of popular votes.
  • The direction of the overall Gujarat result isn't in any doubt. Pollsters are predicting anything between 19 and 21 seats for the BJP. The only cautionary note is that there is only a 3-4 per cent difference in the popular vote of the BJP and Congress.
  • Pollsters say that Bihar has turned out to be "one sided" in favour of BJP-JD(U) but a poll of polls among bureaucrats in Bihar says it is between 6 and 8 out of 14 for the NDA in Phase 3. I don't think Lalu Yadav will have a problem winning the second seat he is contesting.
  • There are two views on the 14 seats of West Bengal that polled in Phase 3. The pollsters are suggesting a decisive Left win with the Cong-TMC picking up at best 4 seats. I have not heard alternative suggestions.
The belief that Congress may not be the largest party on May 16 is gaining ground. In an uncertain situation there are the usual whispers of IB assessments which put Congress below 140. The political trouble shooter of a very large industrial house indicated that the present trends indicated a final tally of BJP 165 and Congress 130. Much is being made of Rahul Gandhi's "off the record" briefing to political editors on Friday morning that he wasn't bothered about what happens in the next 15 days but in how politics shapes up in 30 years time. There is also a buzz about Priyanka's interview in Outlook suggesting a very close contest. Some idiotic BJP-types are taking these bush telegraph signals to heart and dreaming about sarkari appointments. I would unhesitatingly say that they are fools because if the Congress does well in Rajathan, Punjab and Haryana in the next two phases, the whole game could change.

No election is won until the votes are counted.