On a recent visit to Delhi, almost all conversations drifted from the recent terrorist attack on Mumbai to AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa. This is undoubtedly because whatever response the UPA government has to the siege of Mumbai, the next Lok Sabha elections loom, and a major factor in those elections will be the recent alliance between the AIADMK and the Left. Jayalalithaa and her CPI(M) counterpart Prakash Karat tied up the alliance over lunch at Poes Garden on December 5, though it was a low-key news event given that the country was subsumed by outrage over the Mumbai attack.
As the dust settles, however, people seem to have grown curiouser and curiouser about Jayalalithaa. This is probably because over the past three years, they have come to expect the next parliamentary verdict to be fractured, an expectation that has intensified with each Congress defeat in successive assembly elections. Poll-prediction can never cover a person with glory, yet political animals around the country have been predicting that the Congress tally is not going to change much from what it is in this Lok Sabha. The BJP may end up a bit higher, nearer 150, but it needs at least 180 seats for a realistic chance of forming the next government. The Left, from all accounts, is not going to replicate its historic 60-seat tally of 2004.
The BJP keeps telling us that it will build momentum, but no such evidence has been forthcoming. Its prime ministerial candidate, L K Advani, is articulate, active, responsible and possesses a persuasive story, but he is on the wrong side of 80; in a country where 65 per cent of the people are 25 and under, the BJP’s task would have been easier had he been in his 70s. The other parties know this is the BJP’s Achilles’ heel; the Congress thinks Rahul Gandhi’s youthfulness will further hurt the BJP, and it might have had Rahul not been so ineffectual.
Just look at his yawn-inducing speeches in Parliament. Also, he’s a work-shirker: his mother Sonia has on several occasions spoken of offering him more responsibility, implying that he keeps turning down the bigger role. For Rahul, ‘party’ does not refer to a political organisation, but to an occasion for drinking, dancing and flirting. The country senses this.
The recent assembly polls showed the situation to be unchanged. The Congress may have had a psychological boost by winning three states to two, and its win in urbanised Delhi may have made false predictions that the Mumbai attack would harm the UPA. Yet the two states that the BJP won accounted for more Lok Sabha seats than Delhi, Rajasthan and Mizoram put together.
Also, all these were two-party states, unlike the rest of India, where there are regional parties and coalition governments. The fractured verdict is not changing shape to favour either the Congress or the BJP, talk as they might of the “two poles of Indian politics”.
More likely, the contours of the next government will be clearer only after the next elections. If it is to be a Third Front government, perhaps supported from outside by a “pole of Indian politics”, then there are so many permutations that can change (with a Gestalt-type totality) with each seat won or lost by each party, that to list them would take several editions of reductio ad absurdum.
We can leave such number-crunching to fools greater than this columnist. The political leaders who have been the smartest to realise this — and there are those who realised this some time back — are those who have slowly but surely got themselves into position to make the most of what will be a fluid and politically flexible post-poll scenario.
UP chief minister Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party won a majority in the 2007 assembly elections giving UP its first clear verdict in 15 years, was the first to position herself by declaring that she wanted to be the first Dalit prime minister of India, hoping that in time she would emerge a pole around which the other parties would coalesce following the next parliamentary elections. The trouble is, the euphoria of her victory has long worn off, helped in part by her indifference towards good administration. It may well be that UP is an ungovernable state, but it does not help if the stench of corruption not only stays, but gets stronger.
This is perhaps why many in Delhi are intrigued by Jayalalithaa’s alliance with the Left. Some see it as a brilliant tactical move in a well-thought out strategy. If she has to be part of a pre-poll alliance, then it cannot be the NDA, for the Left would see her as untouchable in a fluid post-poll situation. On the other hand, being in alliance with the Left does not make her untouchable to either the BJP or the Congress. Also, if she is with the Left and if, as expected, the JD(U) led by Nitish Kumar, reckoned to be one of the best chief ministers in the country, takes a huge haul of seats in Bihar (the buzz is that Lalu Prasad may not even hold his own seat), then she can persuade him to join her coalition, being a fellow ex-NDA ally. The same holds for other ex-NDA parties.
It is always a messy and noisy affair when a third grouping has to select a prime minister, but Jayalalithaa has the advantage of seniority, having first become chief minister in 1991. Among politicians, this type of seniority counts for a lot. She is seen as strong — she is tough on terrorism despite the popularity of the LTTE in Tamil Nadu; chief minister M Karunanidhi, on the other hand, is unable to skilfully sit on the fence any longer, as he makes feeble noises threatening the UPA even while the government of India lends its full support to the Sri Lanka’s army march on Kilinochchi.
Jayalalithaa is seen as an intelligent and able administrator, head and shoulders above Karunanidhi, whose tenures have always ended with the state’s coffers bankrupt; whose family’s infighting is a laughingstock of the nation; whose defence of telecom minister A Raja’s 2G spectrum allocation scam makes even the jaded shake their heads in dismay; and whose daughter Kanimozhi’s stint in Delhi has been lacklustre and ineffectual.
In Delhi, Jayalalithaa is preferable as prime minister to Mayawati. Which is why, for a visitor from Chennai these days, there are a whole bunch of questions about Jayalalithaa.
Will 2009 be her year? In the fluid post-poll scenario that is likely, the window of opportunity for the country to get its first Tamil prime minister exists. It is a narrow window that relies on a lot of variables and permutations, but it exists, and an increasing number of eyes are turning to Jayalalithaa to see if she can seize the moment.
About The Author; Aditya Sinha is the Editor-in-Chief of The New Indian Express and is based in Chennai