The endgame

The endgame

By M.J. Akbar | 1 December, 2012
UPA2 believes that the cash subsidy scheme will prove to be NREGA2, and help the party win enough votes to get a third term. Is that a reasonable hope? PTI
Congress spokesman Jairam Ramesh promised cash subsidies would be a “game changer”. Which precise game is Ramesh trying to change? The electoral game.

Giving a reason is rarely a problem, but you need to choose your words carefully when offering an excuse. Words are both opaque and transparent. They can expose the inner thought that you would prefer to keep hidden.

Take, as an instance, the DMK's official explanation for supporting Congress on the FDI vote in Parliament. It could not keep the bitterness out of its voice even while calming Congress nerves, but that is the obvious part of the story since it actually said that it was bitter. The explanation was more interesting. It was only doing so to keep "communal forces" — read BJP — out of power.

Break down the thought process. There is no way that BJP can come to power in this Parliament. It is common knowledge that a government defeat on FDI will hasten a general election. Which in turn means that DMK believes that if a general election were held within the next three months, UPA would lose. The DMK knows that it will lose in Tamil Nadu, and Congress will be decimated in Andhra Pradesh, which means that the numbers no longer add up for the alliance.

Or examine the phrase that Congress used when it announced cash subsidies from its party office, although the cash will come from government, which means taxpayers' money. The eloquent Congress spokesman Jairam Ramesh promised cash subsidies would be a "game changer". Which precise game is Ramesh trying to change? The electoral game, naturally: there is no other game in town. And why is he changing the game? Clearly because Ramesh thinks Congress is behind by a few goals and it is long past half-time. You don't change a game which you are winning.

UPA2 believes that the cash subsidy scheme will prove to be NREGA2, and help the party win enough votes to get a third term. Is that a reasonable hope?

It is certainly better than nothing, but will it be enough? There are important differences, between the end game before the last general elections and the next one. The first UPA government was not burdened by a track record of corruption. Arvind Kejriwal probably voted for UPA in 2009. This time he has stolen the base slogan of the Congress in 2004 and 2009, its appeal to the "Aam Aadmi", by naming his own fledgling party after the common man. Any Congress advertisement appealing to this category will be counter-productive at the very least.

An analysis of Congress seats in 2009 indicates that NREGA was not as effective as might seem at first glance. NREGA was designed for the rural vote, but most Congress gains were in urban areas.

An analysis of Congress seats in 2009 indicates that NREGA was not as effective as might seem at first glance. NREGA was designed for the rural vote, but most Congress gains were in urban areas, in both the large cities as well as small towns. Urban India swung towards UPA because of Dr Manmohan Singh's honest image, and because his government offered the hope that in another five years it would power the economy towards greater growth and elimination of poverty. Instead, the economy has taken a dive, with 2012 turning out to be the worst year in a decade. Prices continue to rise relentlessly, particularly in the kitchen bill. NREGA helped raise a generally positive mood. There is, as the Prime Minister himself has admitted, a negative atmosphere at the moment.

In 2009 UPA retained over 70 seats in Andhra, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu; and won handsome victories in Rajasthan, Kerala and Bengal for reasons that had far more to do with the situation in the states than any national policy initiatives. Congress will lose Rajasthan and Andhra this time. In Bengal, the UPA engine was powered by Mamata Banerjee. Her crusade now is against rising prices and corruption, for which she blames Congress: her pithy term is "loot-maar".

Congress strategists have not given up on Andhra. They believe recovery is possible by conceding the demand for Telangana and finding some way to get Jagan Reddy back. But surely Jagan Reddy would have been more amenable if he had not been shut away in jail, with CBI pursuing a persistent no-bail approach to the case. It requires terrific arrogance to believe, as Andhra Congress does, that you can get away with anything.

A general election has many components, but the decisive edge comes increasingly from the states. Congress can draw some comfort from Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena has lost its pillar and BJP remains in the doldrums in every region except Vidarbha. Karnataka is back in play, but a punctured BJP's losses will be shared with Deve Gowda. The Northeast and Kerala have become fluid; and Congress will struggle to retain its seats in what is called the Hindi belt.

It will take more than one press conference at AICC to change this game, even if the BJP does specialise in helping out with self-goals.

 

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