The In­dian po­lit­i­cal sce­nario is un­der­go­ing in­ter­est­ing changes with more fe­male lead­ers com­ing to the fore. Whether their pres­ence will make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in meet­ing the peo­ple’s prob­lems is a ques­tion that needs to be an­swered.

Southasia - - Cover story - By S. Mu­rari

Women politi­cians are re­align­ing po­lit­i­cal

as­pi­ra­tions in In­dia.

Apo­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, maybe sex­ist com­ment, is no two women and no two watches agree. The re­cently con­cluded elec­tions in five States of In­dia have thrown up three women who may shape a po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment: Congress pres­i­dent and United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance Chair­per­son So­nia Gandhi, whose coali­tion is head­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, mav­er­ick Tri­namool Congress Chief Ma­mata Ban­er­jee, who has stormed the last bas­tion of the com­mu­nists in West Ben­gal, and an equally imperious leader of a pow­er­ful re­gional party from Tamil Nadu, J. Jay­alalitha, who has trounced the rul­ing party in the State, the Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam, win­ning 203 of the 234 Assem­bly seats. In West Ben­gal, the TMC has won 184 out of 294 and its ju­nior part­ner Congress has picked an­other 42. The Marx­ist-led left front has lost power af­ter rul­ing con­tin­u­ously since 1971 and ended with a mea­ger tall of 62.

Ms. Ma­mata’s TMC is al­ready an ally of the Congress in the fed­eral coali­tion and they also fought the elec­tions in West Ben­gal as part­ners. In fact, Ma­mata quit as Rail­way Min­is­ter to de­vote all her time to her na­tive West Ben­gal with the sole aim of bring­ing to an end to 34 years of un­in­ter­rupted com­mu­nist rule.

Ms. Jay­alalitha’s All In­dia Anna DMK has made an equally im­pres­sive clean sweep in Tamil Nadu, prompt­ing Ms. So­nia Gandhi to tele­phone to con­grat­u­late her and in­vite her for tea in her New Delhi res­i­dence for a po­lit­i­cal pow-wow. Bad news for the badly mauled Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam whose un­easy re­la­tion­ship with the Congress is still con­tin­u­ing and who is still part of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment though with re­duced clout af­ter los­ing power in the State.

The Congress has been wait­ing for a chance to dump the DMK ever since what has come to be known as the 2G spec­trum, in­volv­ing grave ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the grant of mo­bile tele­phone li­censes at throw­away prices by DMK Min­is­ter in the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment Andimuthu Raja, lead­ing to a loss run­ning to bil­lions of ru­pees to the Gov­ern­ment, his exit from the Gov­ern­ment and his ultimate ar­rest and pros­e­cu­tion along with Ms. Kan­i­mozhi, his close friend, par­lia­men­tar­ian and daugh­ter of Tamil Nadu Chief Min­is­ter M. Karunanidhi.

Though the op­po­si­tion started ag­i­tat­ing over the is­sue soon af­ter the scam broke out in 2008, it was Ms. Jay­alalitha’s in­ter­view to a na­tional tele­vi­sion chan­nel last year which pre­cip­i­tated mat­ters. In that in­ter­view, she of­fered un­con­di­tional sup­port to the Congress-led coali­tion at the Cen­tre and em­bold­ened Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh to sack Raja, though the Congress was re­luc-

tant to send the DMK it­self out of the fed­eral coali­tion. The con­tin­u­ance of the Congress al­liance with the scam­tainted DMK in Tamil Nadu has hit both badly, with the Congress win­ning just five seats and the DMK not only los­ing power but also end­ing up with a mis­er­able tally of just 33, thus los­ing even the sta­tus of prin­ci­pal op­po­si­tion to an ally of the tri­umphant AIADMK.

Hence the post-haste in­vi­ta­tion by Ms. So­nia Gandhi to Ms. Jay­alalitha for tea. Will Jaya bite the bait? It de­pends on her as­sess­ment of the prospects of the Congress-led UPA win­ning a third term in 2014 when the next Par­lia­ment elec­tion is due.

The elec­tions to five State Assem­blies have been seen as a run-up to the next Par­lia­ment elec­tions. Of the five States, the Congress was ju­nior part­ner to the win­ning TMC in West Ben­gal and to the loser DMK in Tamil Nadu. Where it has led from the front, the Congress has done rea­son­ably well. In Ker­ala, its coali­tion of United Demo­cratic Front (UDF) has nosed out the Left Demo­cratic Front (LDF). In the fed­er­ally ad­min­is­tered Puducherry, neigh­bor­ing Tamil Nadu, the Congress has lost power to a break­away leader and for­mer Chief Min­is­ter N. Ran­gasamy.

The Congress per­for­mance has been quite good only in Assam where it is set to rule on for a record third term of an­other five years with the Congress pick­ing 78 out of 126 seats. Chief Min­is­ter Tarun Go­goi, fight­ing on peace and de­vel­op­ment plank in this in­sur­gency-hit north-east­ern hill State was helped along by po­lar­iza­tion be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims.

Mus­lims, who form up 30 per cent of the vot­ers, switched their al­le­giance from the Congress to the Deobandi out­fit, Badarud­din Aj­mal’s All-In­dia United Demo­cratic Front ( AIUDF) which has since 2006 ag­gres­sively taken up the cause of mi­nori­ties. With 18 leg­is­la­tors, the AIDUF is Assam’s largest Op­po­si­tion party. With the Hin­dus back­ing the Congress, the right-wing BJP which has been ag­gres­sively cam­paign­ing against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion from Bangladesh, has found it­self left with a poor five seats, de­spite its al­liance with the Asom Gana Par­ishad, a one-time pow­er­ful party which sprung from a stu­dent move­ment on the same is­sue of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in the 1970s and 80s. The AGP had to be con­tent with just ten seats.

In Ker­ala, the trend has been for the peo­ple to al­ter­nate be­tween the two fronts, re­spec­tively led by the Congress and the Com­mu­nist Party (Marx­ist) In­dia. De­spite this time­tested trend, the Congress-led front has barely man­aged to romp home, win­ning 72 out of the to­tal 140 seats. This be­cause the out­go­ing Marx­ist Chief Min­is­ter V. S. Achutanan­dan, de­spite be­ing dis­fa­vored by his own party’s cen­tral lead­er­ship, has proved to an ex­tremely a pop­u­lar leader and pro­vided good gov­er­nance. The LDF’s tally of 66 against the UDF’s 76 is at­trib­ut­able en­tirely to his per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity.

Peo­ple in gen­eral have voted a change. But the game changer is West Ben­gal where the CPM-led left front came to power in 1970s by tak­ing up the cause of poor and mar­ginal farm­ers and land­less farm work­ers, and en­trenched it­self through far-reach­ing land re­forms in the next two decades and equally im­por­tant pan­chayat sys­tem.

Iron­i­cally, it was the land led to the even­tual down­fall of the left front. The left front gov­ern­ment did not see the writ­ing wall when the peas­ants rose in revolt in 2007 against al­lot­ment of fer­tile land in Sin­gur, for a chem­i­cal hub and in Sin­gur for Tata’s small car plant. The out­lawed Maoists and Tri­namool fully backed the farm­ers’ ag­i­ta­tion, lead­ing to Tata pulling out of the plant and mov­ing to Gu­jarat, and the Gov­ern­ment putting the chem­i­cal hub plan on hold.

The peas­ants’ ag­i­ta­tion was spear­headed by the out­lawed Maoists and the Ma­mata’s Tri­namool, lead­ing to ac­cu­sa­tion by the Left front par­ties of col­lu­sion be­tween the two. In the end, the Tatas shut shop in Sin­gur and the chem­i­cal hub in Nandi­gram was put on hold. Rid­ing on the wave of anger of the peas­ants, Ma­mata has come to power.

In a bril­liant anal­y­sis, vet­eran CPI leader A. B. Bard­han has said “ar­ro­gance of power and in some cases corruption” has led to iso­la­tion of left front lead­ers from the peo­ple.

Call­ing Sin­gur and Nandi­gram as sym­bols and not the disease, he has said while the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion pol­icy was right, stake hold­ers should have been con­sulted on alien­ation of land for set­ting up in­dus­tries. The larger ques­tion the left front has to pon­der over is why it “re­mained con­fined only to three states dur­ing more than three decades and could not get any sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence in the rest of the coun­try.”

With left par­ties los­ing in West Ben­gal, they have be­come mar­ginal play­ers at the na­tional level. Hav­ing al­ready lost Tripura in the north-east, its only strong base left is Ker­ala which saw the world’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected com­mu­nist in late 1950s.

With the left vir­tu­ally left out of the reck­on­ing, the main ri­val for the Congress at the na­tional level is the BJP. How­ever it has been on the de­cline since it lost power at the Cen­tre in 2004. The cur­rent round of elec­tions shows that the BJP is yet to re­trieve lost ground.

There­fore, de­spite its lack­lus­ter per­for­mance, the Congress can sit pretty, smug in the be­lief there is no al­ter­na­tive to it. But a Congress pulling on be­cause of TINA fac­tor can­not be firm with its part­ners in gov­ern­ment, as the 2G spec­trum has shown. The

Congress does not have a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment and the UPA is sur­viv­ing on the sup­port of its re­gional al­lies like the TMC and the DMK. In this, the TMC has been less de­mand­ing than the DMK. The Congress in­ac­tion on the spec­trum scam has se­verely dented the im­age of the UPA. The way the Congress de­fended the DMK has led to the com­mon per­cep­tion that Raja could not have acted alone and a part of the loot must have gone right up to the top. So much So­nia has come to be­lieve that the DMK has be­come a li­a­bil­ity and an em­bar­rass­ment for the Congress.

In such a sce­nario, what will be the game plan of Jay­alalitha? She has al­ways nur­tured na­tional am­bi­tion. In fact, her AIADMK was part of the BJP-led Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance, like Ma­mata’s TMC for a while. It was a sim­i­lar tea party hosted by So­nia in 1999 which em­bold­ened Jay­alalitha to top­ple the Va­j­payee Gov­ern­ment with dis­as­trous con­se­quences. Con­trary what she was led to be­lief, So­nia did not have the num­bers. As a re­sult, an al­ter­na­tive Congress-led Gov­ern­ment could not be formed. The DMK rushed in to join hands with the BJP which was voted back to power in 1999.

Be­liev­ing that she was led up the gar­den path, Jay­alalitha launched a vit­ri­olic at­tack on So­nia. That did not pre­vent the two com­ing to­gether in the 2001 State elec­tions. The DMK quit the NDA to­wards the fag end of its term and tied up with the Congress in the 2004 Par­lia­ment elec­tions. It con­tin­ued for the next 2009 poll also. Now it has come un­der strain fol­low­ing the 2G spec­trum.

Now So­nia has the first move for a re­vival of al­liance with Jaya. But Jaya seems to be in no hurry to close her op­tions. Her swearing-in was at­tended by Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter Narendar Modi though he said he was only re­turn­ing the cour­tesy as she at­tended his as­sump­tion of­fice in 2002. Nev­er­the­less, the po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance can­not be lost sight of. At the same, Jay­alalalitha plans to meet Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh and have tea with So­nia in Delhi soon.

In other words, she is keep­ing her op­tions open. She may take a call closer to the next elec­tions, if the present UPA coali­tion sur­vives till then. The writer is a se­nior In­dian jour­nal­ist. He has been associated with the Ban­ga­lore-based English daily Dec­can Her­ald and re­tired as an as­so­ciate edi­tor of the news­pa­per.

So­nia Gandhi

Ma­mata Ban­er­jee

J. Jay­alalithaa

Women politi­cians are re­shap­ing the po­lit­i­cal land­scape in In­dia.

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