By Swapan Dasgupta
A sting operation by a TV channel is said to have exposed some of the more dodgy players in one of the few growth sectors in an otherwise declining India: the opinion poll industry. The ‘exposure’ is absolutely warranted and may even contribute to a process whereby professionally designed and executed polls are distinguished from their made-to-order counterparts.
Not that opinion polls have determined the Establishment’s pre-election verdict as to which side will prevail in a general election. In my experience, there were only two occasions when the otherwise sharp instincts of the Delhi Establishment have been proved wrong. The first was in 1977 when there was general disbelief that Indira Gandhi could actually be defeated; and the second was in 2004 when a smug and over-confident BJP failed to gauge the devastation resulting from imperfect alliances in southern India. And yes, in 1996, there was genuine uncertainty—a fear that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With less than three months to go before the next Lok Sabha is formally notified, the belief in the governing circles of Delhi is that Narendra Modi is likely to be the next Prime Minister of India. From the speculation over numbers which dominated conversations a month ago, the interest these days is over the composition of a Modi Cabinet. In a cruel world where there is a rush to climb on to the bandwagon of the RPI (Ruling Party of India), the dynasty and the Congress have been unceremoniously relegated to the opposition benches—not least by Congress supporters themselves. As a former editor with Congress sympathies admitted to me last week: “The Congress is working towards ensuring a respectable defeat for itself.”
Of course, there are those who are still clutching at straws. A section of the “activist” brigade still believe that the Aam Aadmi Party will spring a national surprise and prevent Modi’s shift of residence from Gandhinagar to Delhi. And there are those who cling to the belief that the BJP itself—egged on by regional parties—will stage a palace coup in May and install a more “pliable” PM.
I am among the tiny handful with access to Delhi’s charmed circle that believes that no election is really won till the counting of votes end. Modi may well enjoy the initial advantage but it is only after the candidates have been announced and the campaign enters its final lap that a meaningful call can be taken. More to the point, I don’t underestimate the ability of the Congress to put up a fierce fight till the very last day. When it comes to political ruthlessness—as we witnessed during the passage of the Telengana Bill—the Congress is miles ahead of the BJP.
Indeed, the past few weeks have clearly indicated that the Congress is engaged in making contingency plans. Its first priority is, of course, to stop Modi at all costs, using every weapon at its disposal. However, after Ram Vilas Paswan’s U-turn and re-entry into the NDA, there is a feeling in Congress circles that this may not be possible. Indeed, the whisper is that things may actually get worse.
This leads to the second fall-back option: to make life as difficult as possible for a new Modi Government. Eyebrows have been raised at the peremptory transfer of the Health Secretary, the attempt to give the head of a major public sector undertaking an undeserved extension and even the last-minute nomination of a Rajya Sabha MP. Less publicised has been the frenzied activity to ensure that every vacancy for bureaucratic posts, committees, governing bodies and other posts where the Centre or its Governors in the states can use their discretionary powers are filled with individuals who, even if they are not pro-Congress are at least anti-Modi. So great has been the rush to clear names that intelligence agencies are believed to have complained that they have not been given the time to undertake due diligence. In the Ministry of External Affairs, it is said that appointments that are due six months or more later are being settled before the Code of Conduct comes into force.
With its long experience of governance the Congress knows that many of these last-minute decisions can easily be reversed by a new government. At the same time, it is aware that it may be many months (sometimes even years) before the proverbial attention of any minister is brought to the hidden minefields. There will be enough opportunities to trip up a new government in unexpected areas and create an impression of mal-governance.
Those with a political memory may recall that the first government of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998 was seriously hamstrung in its initial days by bureaucratic subterfuge. For example, the onion crisis that led to the ignominious defeat of the BJP in the 1998 Delhi Assembly election was a man-made creation of NAFED, controlled by a Congress appointee. Likewise, the diplomatic counter-offensive after the Pokhran-II blasts was hamstrung by the non-cooperation of envoys with an agenda of hostility to the Vajpayee government.
If Modi is able to translate his early lead in the 2014 race into a decisive last-mile surge, he will undoubtedly become the next Prime Minister. However, the belief that a new man at the helm will instantly translate into a new dawn for India may well be premature. The outgoing regime has left booby traps for the new regime in the most unlikely of places. The new PM has a challenging job ahead of him (or her).