By Inder Jit
(Released on 13 June 1989)
The poll battle is hotting up. Everything is being said or done with an eye on winning supporters and influencing people. Nothing is being left to chance. The stakes are once again high, indeed very high. The battle is not just a quest for continuing in power for the Congress (I) leaders. Even physical survival is involved in a tragic situation in which Punjab still awaits a solution and continues to bleed and suffer. What the outcome will be at the time of the poll — in October at the earliest or in the first week of January at the latest — lies in the lap of the Gods. Much will depend on the popular mood or the hawa on the eve of the election. Anything could happen between now and then in a country where the public easily goes euphoric and its opinion and mood are known to swing from one extreme to another. We have made heroes of ordinary mortals and raised them to glorious heights one day and denounced and dumped them the next day.
The Congress-I hopes to “sweep the poll and win an overwhelming majority”, according to an assessment Mr. H.K.L. Bhagat gave me at the Pioneer’s 125th year celebration at the Vigyan Bhawan on Wednesday last. “Don’t give me what is fit only for a bhashan,” I said. He responded: “I am serious. Our people know what is good for them and the country.” The Opposition, for its party, is no less optimistic, no matter what you and I think and feel in the metropolitan or other urban centres — or in our ivory towers. Said Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee: “As things stand at present, the Opposition parties should get an overwhelming majority. I give the Congress-I a maximum of 200 seats out of a total of 544 seats”. This assessment, as Mr. Vajpayee clarified, “Is based on the expectation that the Opposition parties will ultimately be able to fight the Congress-I on a one-to-one basis. All of us are keen to avoid splitting of the anti-Congress-I vote this time.”
The Congress-I assessment is based mainly on the failure of the Opposition thus far to project itself as a credible alternative. In sharp contrast, the Congress-I sees itself acknowledged once again as India’s best bet for stability and unity. The Janata Government in Karnataka and its impressive record posed a problem. But this has since been resolved — rightly or wrongly. In addition, the party hopes to capitalize in big way on Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s new deal on Panchayat Raj. Not a little store is also laid by the Rs.2,500-crore Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, which is expected to swell the ranks of its supporters. Asserted a Congress-I leader: “Our voters go by broad impressions. Remember, Indira Gandhi won her battle against the old guard by declaring: ‘They say Indira hatao. I say garibi hatao.’ Rajivji has now given a new slogan: ‘Power to the people’. The masses are happy, who is bothered at the grassroots about constitutional niceties and the autonomy of the States?”
The Opposition expects to win mainly on the basis of what it describes as the Rajiv Government’s present image of being “corrupt and rotten”, arguing: “The Opposition is seldom voted to power. Only the Government is voted out.” Mr. V.P. Singh, for instance, is not unduly worried that the Bofors and the Submarine scandals no longer dominate the proceedings of Parliament or the front pages of newspapers. He told me not too long: “The people are now well aware of the truth. The chowkidar has turned into a chor.” At any rate, the Opposition is not without more ammunition. This is expected to be used at the right moment. They also hope to cash in on what they describe as the failure of the Government’s economic policies, as reflected in two things which concern the masses most: unemployment and prices. The Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, they feel, will only highlight the Government’s basic failure —— and “its attempts to fool the people through stunts”.
All out efforts are, therefore, under way on both sides to improve the image of their top leaders and to sully those of the opponents. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi turned up in the Lok Sabha to announce personally the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and also to introduce the historic Panchayati Raj Bill, even as he was greatly conspicuous by his absence time and again when the House was plunged into disorder. (As the Leader of the House, Mr. Gandhi is required to ensure that Parliament functions smoothly). Everything possible is being done to damn the Janata Dal leader, Mr. V.P. Singh. In the bargain, all norms and ethics have been cast to the winds. Even a newspaper article by Mr. Madhu Limaye, who himself never made it to the big league as a controversial socialist, was quoted at length by Doordarshan to denigrate both Mr. V.P. Singh and the Janata Dal. Obliging newspapers have also been roped in to denounce Mr. Singh and put across the official pro-Rajiv line.
On the other hand, Mr. V.P. Singh has been persuaded by his close aides and supporters to give greater attention to his popular image and to be careful about what he says. (Remember, following his triumph in the Allahabad by-election, Mr. Singh openly stated that he would be “a disaster as Prime Minister.” This, as he told me, was intended to stop people from talking of him as Prime Minister. But the statement is now being quoted against him!) Mr. Singh has, therefore, asserted himself on the choice of the Janata Dal Chief in Bihar. He was far from happy at having appointed Mr. Raghunath Jha at the pressing instance of Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr Devi Lal. Now, he has removed Mr. Jha and appointed Mr. Ram Sundar Das, who has a much better image. In the process, he has shown that he can also be tough and decisive. Those who attended the Janata Dal’s recent meet in Bangalore also speak highly of his conduct of the conclave.
Simultaneously, the Janata Dal is also working patiently to ensure Opposition unity at the polls and a one-to-one contest against the Congress-I, especially in the Hindi heartland which accounts for 221 seats. This is sought to be done through the National Front and through seat adjustments with the BJP, notwithstanding CPM Opposition. The CPM maintains that any adjustment with the BJP would drive the Muslims, who constitute 16 per cent of the voters, into the arms of the Congress-I. But the Janata Dal disagrees and asserts that adjustments are tactical and wholly distinct from an alliance. The Janata Dal and the BJP are also clear that adjustments are a must if the Congress-I is to be humbled. Consequently, Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Devi Lal have not only met to hammer out adjustments, but their efforts hold out promises of unexpected success, proving the well-known adage: if there is a will there is a way.
The Congress-I, for its part, is trying its best overtly and covertly to prevent the Opposition from coming together. Quiet moves have been on to persuade the CPM to stay out of the National Front. At the same time, the Left has also been attacked publicly by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi for continuing in a front in which its principal member, the Janata Dal, is “in alliance” with the “communal BJP”. The CPM would, no doubt, be happier if the Janata Dal agreed not to seek adjustments with the BJP. But, to quote Mr. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, “the CPM is clear that the Rajiv Gandhi Government today stands isolated from the common man and the masses and must be given a crushing defeat.” Further, the CPM has hardly any following of its own in the Hindi heartland. It is, therefore, not terribly keen on making an issue of the Janata Dal-BJP talks and walking out of the National Front, something which would help only the ruling Congress-I.
One issue remains. What does the proverbial common man think and feel? Some quiet soundings over the past few weeks have yielded interesting results. The weaker sections of the community are exercised most all over the continuous prices rise, which has made their “lives miserable.” (They assert: “What do our Ministers know of the price of atta, daal and other basic needs.) Corruption scandals relating to Bofors guns and HDW submarines undoubtedly bother them. But what has angered them most is the hard fact that corruption now afflicts all levels of administration down to the panchayat. Nothing moves even at the grass-roots without bribery. “Both have made the weaker sections anti-Rajiv Government,” to quote more than one person. But they have a problem. They do not yet see a credible alternative and feel disgusted by the infighting (real or created) in the Janata Dal. Both the Congress-I and the Opposition would do well to pause — and take note.——INFA