Politics is not always about hard facts, because it is difficult to decipher what precisely will happen in a fluid situation. It can be dependent on assessment and expectation.
The truly political space in the great building that houses India’s Parliament is not the rows where MPs sit in session, where debates take place some of the time and uproar goes on more frequently. The nerve centre is a cool area called Central Hall, cool both by temperature and temperament. There are no hotheads here.
This is where the real action takes place, in a spirit of great bonhomie. The same MPs who glare and shout at one another before the Speaker and the surrounding TV cameras, happily share tea, buttered toast and gossip laced with more honesty than their official party stance might permit. This is where a Mulayam Singh MP, for instance, might tell his BJP colleague what exactly is the lie of the electoral land in Uttar Pradesh now. Even when Parliament is not in session there is activity, for committees continue their work, and in any case you can’t get a better lunch at that price anywhere else in the capital.
The talk just now is that government will call a special session of Parliament in the first week of July to pass the two bills that it hopes will revive Congress’ fortunes: food security and land acquisition. Privately, many MPs and parties have great reservations about the former, for India does not have the infrastructure necessary for the scheme and the possibility of enormous wastage and corruption in the process could leave the treasury famished. But publicly no political party will oppose the concept, although it might demand amendments.
The point is not the bill, but the special session. Why call one when there is a normal monsoon session scheduled in the second half of August? The argument goes on these lines: Congress wants the food bill but cannot afford to see its weaknesses exposed in implementation. If elections are held next April and May, then the complaints that accompany food security implementation could drown out any applause. So the wisest option is to pass the bill and announce general elections for November-December. This makes political sense for the ruling party.
But this does not make a winter election certain. There remains a strong lobby in Congress which is quite determined to last the full course, for every day in office is another day in which muscle can be flexed. But there is definitely an election mood creeping up among all parties, and they have begun their exercises in position play. Ideally, smaller parties would like to keep all options open. This also means that no option is closed.
In contrast to 2004, allies have dropped away from Congress: Mamata Banerjee went out of government, followed by DMK. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati were never in. Yadav has begun to sting Congress in his speeches, and each barb reinforces the public perception that this government has failed even in the assessment of those who keep it alive.
If there is one topic in Delhi which is almost as exciting as the prospect of a general election, it is which way Sharad Pawar will turn. Pawar plays poker with the discipline of chess, and chess with the studied gambling instinct required in poker. To continue the metaphor of a card game, Pawar will not display his hand until all bets are visible on the table and he can assess which side-deal will be in his best interest. The youth wing of his party, NCP, has just passed a very Marxian resolution declaring that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has squeezed the poor and cut one fourth of welfare spending, which is all true. But if Pawar is so minded, he can always declare that the food security bill is sufficient atonement by the Congress, and it has returned to its socialist roots after a prodigal affair with capitalism. So all’s well.
Pawar will shift only if he is over 100% sure that continued partnership with Congress will hurt him badly at the polls. Nor will he enter the inner ring of NDA in one quick leap. He will edge into the nebulous outer ring, where what is loosely and inaccurately called the Third Front waits in hope. The final pattern in Maharashtra will probably be known only when the Election Commission begins to accept nominations for seats.
We are heading for the most open election since the late 1990s. All parties are convinced that Congress is in free fall, but no one is certain as to who will be the beneficiary and to which extent. Parties will, therefore, try and maximise their MP strength and then sit across the table in Delhi when the time comes to form a government. They also know that any government without a nucleus cannot hold.
Central Hall is not going to be merely cool. It will also be fun.