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The Good and The Ugly

Omkar Goswami

Some time ago, I asked a wise and politically connected friend about the election outcome. His answer was brilliant: “Ab to teen patti blind pe chal raha hai. Show key baad bhi kaun jaaney kya hoga” [“As of now, the three-card poker is being played blind. Even after players see their cards, who knows what will happen.”] He said that in his long experience of national elections, this was the first time when nobody had a clue of what would happen when the votes got counted on 16 May 2009.

This is so true. Never in the history of elections in India have we seen the battle for the Lok Sabha being fought without a single significant national agenda. Here we are in the middle of one of the worst global economic turmoil in the history with crazy militants in Pakistan just a tad away from pressing their fingers on the nuclear button, and what do our politicians talk about? The pros and cons of an idiotic fat boy — a distant claimant to India’s lucky sperm’s club — who spews venom at Pilibhit? A born anew Luddite from Uttar Pradesh who promises to ban English and computers in one fell sweep? A leftist whose experience of electoral politics is limited to the Jawaharlal Nehru University sweepstakes, and is determined to ram antiquated hard-line Stalinism to relegate the left to the sidelines? A cherubic lad whose words are lapped up by the media for no other reason except that he carries the magic surname? An man who is being portrayed as the BJP’s prime minister in waiting, who refuses to apologise for the Gujarat riots and claims that his role in it is the concoction of the media? A man in his eighties who thinks he can be the prime minister of a country where 60 per cent of the population are 15 to 40 years old? Or the queen of Uttar Pradesh for whom ‘inclusiveness’ is how much more she include for herself? Never will so many people have cast their votes for so little.

Even so, the votes will be cast and counted. Here are the possible situations that can emerge from India’s most issue-less election.

Scenario 1: The Good. The Congress wins some 170-odd seats, gaining 25 over its present strength in the Lok Sabha. If that were to happen, the Lalu-Paswan-Mulayam troika will come back to the UPA. So too will Sharad Pawar; and the DMK, with whatever seats it can garner in Tamil Nadu. If one were to add the smaller parties that have traditionally allied with the Congress — or against the BJP — the UPA of 2009 could still fall short of the 285-mark that it would constitute a safe majority. What then? Will it try to woo Mayawati if she wins 45-odd seats? At the cost of Mulayam walking out, and even higher costs in the future? Or would it try to get Navin Patnaik to become a post-poll ally? Or get the TDP on board? Or would it try to convince the more pragmatic Bengali communists to make Comrade Prakash see the eponymous light? Whatever happens, this scenario will be good for India insofar as we can hope to have a government that can last the full term — and do odd bits of reform as it goes along, a step forward, a few sideways and half a step backwards, as it did during 1994 to 1999.

Scenario 2: Also good, but unlikely. The BJP winning 165 seats on its own steam. That’s a gain of 27 seats. But the problems are deeper. It can count on Nitish Kumar, the Shiv Sena, and the Shiromani Akali Dal, the PMK, Amma’s AIADMK and the odd parties here and there. But these won’t add up to the extra 115-120 seats it needs to have a comfortable majority. Some parties will have nothing to do with it: the BJD, the NCP, the TDP and the communists. So, unless the BJP does even better than 165, and its pre-poll and potential post-poll allies do very well at the hustings, it seems unlikely that the NDA will be able to prove its strength to form government. However, from the point of view economic reforms, this dispensation could also be good for India.

Scenario 3. The ugly. Neither Congress nor the BJP cross the 130-140 mark. All hell will break loose from the evening of 16 May. Think of a motley combination of the left with 40-odd seats, Mayawati with 45, and other sundry chaps with none commanding more than 15 seats trying to form a government. It will be a tail so large and unwieldy that it will incapacitate the poor dog. That is India’s worst nightmare coming true — for the 18 months to two years that the government lasts.

Pray then that democracy doesn’t race to the lowest common denominator.


Published: Business World, May 2009


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