IN the life cycle of elected governments, a time comes when the public support decisively swings from one of enjoying inherent trust to one in which people have lost implicit trust. In case of some governments, this happens very rapidly and in some others, it takes a very long time as was the case with the Left Front in West Bengal which had an uninterrupted reign of 34 years.
Usually, a major decision or action precipitates this dramatic shift of public perceptions about an elected government. In Left ruled West Bengal, the agitation in Singur provided the stimulus. In the case of the UPA government, the midnight crackdown on Baba Ramdev’s supporters – after meekly acquiescing to him and rolling out the red carpet at Delhi airport – has provided that spark.
I have been keeping tabs on public opinion for several months now and the extensive ground level feedback that we have gathered shows that the midnight crackdown on Baba Ramdev’s fast was the turning point and turned the supporting masses against the Congress led government at the Centre.
Admittedly, it has taken many years in office and many scams in its wake to pierce the credibility of the Congress led government at the Centre. And, once the credibility of a regime is eroded, it is impossible to regain it. Rajiv Gandhi government never recovered from the Bofors scandal that broke out just two years after he won a landslide victory in 1984 and faced a humiliating defeat in 1989. Similarly, PV Narasimha Rao’s government never recovered from a series of scandals – securities scam, JMM scandal, Sukhram’s telecom scam, Urea scam, etc. –that led to its devastating poll defeat in 1996.
It is instructive to study how the governments in the past tried to recover ground when they were confronted with extremely adverse situations. Indira Gandhi imposed emergency in 1975 following Allahabad High Court’s verdict declaring her election to Lok Sabha as void; Rajiv Gandhi’s associates forged documents purporting to show that his principal challenger VP Singh had a secret bank account in a foreign bank in St Kitts; VP Singh himself unleashed the anti-quota stir by implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990; PV Narasimha Rao raked up years old Hawala scandal to fix political rivals in 1995 etc.
Circa 2011, the Congress party facing an unprecedented crisis over corruption charges can be expected to do all that the past governments have done and much more to survive politically. But the UPA presently has a serious problem at hand.
First, it faces a multitude of scams and myriad issues like black money, corruption, price rise etc. With every passing week, new scams are coming out of the closet. Undoubtedly, 2G is one scam that has damaged the UPA government the most. The scale of the loot and its brazen manner has had a devastating impact on the public. Curiously, the 2G scam which has claimed many top leaders of the DMK hasn’t yet reached the Congress’s doorstep. The manner in which the Congress Party stymied the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) probe led by the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi and the tardy functioning of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probing the 2G scam have aroused suspicions about the Congress Party’s motives and involvement.
Second, unlike in the past when governments faced one major scam and a clearly identified political rival, the Congress Party is faced with a barrage of attacks from an active judiciary, a demanding civil society led by popular Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, a rejuvenated opposition, vigilant media and statutory institutions like the CAG. Despite the Sonia Gandhi led Congress party’s best attempts to emasculate high offices of the Prime Minister, President by appointing pliable individuals to these venerable institutions, the Congress Party has not been able to avoid public scrutiny as other institutions of the government have turned their heat on the government.
True to its habit, the Congress Party will attempt some drastic actions to regain its lost credibility. It will unleash vendetta against opposition leaders and attempt to show that all those arraigned against the Congress are corrupt. It will create and exploit every opportunity to rake up non-issues to divert public attention.
It may even resort to dividing the electorate on caste, communal or some other lines to minimise the electoral damage. This may actually backfire on the Congress Party that traditionally has had a wide appeal across various caste and other groups. Yet, a desperate Congress Party may make some cynical moves to get out of the corruption rut. Attempts to link activists like Anna Hazare with the RSS are a part of this cynical strategy.
Take my word: Nothing will help restore the present government’s credibility. Let me explain this from my experience as a poll analyst for two decades. When a government enjoys public trust, all its actions are generally seen from a positive perspective. And, when a government is seen to be inherently untrustworthy, all its actions become suspect. All actions of the Manmohan Singh government will henceforth be viewed from a negative perspective due to the credibility crisis that envelopes it.
The Manmohan Singh government, despite enjoying a parliamentary majority is a lame duck government. Whether it lasts the full term or dies a premature death will depend on its political survival strategies. For sure, in the public mind, it has already lost its mandate. Its defeat at polls, whenever they are held, is an inevitability that stares it in its face.
The moot question is who will benefit from a declining Congress. In the absence of a single national icon in the political arena leading the movement against corruption, the electoral gains will be distributed among various parties. A past master in vilifying its opponents, the Congress Party has mounted a counter attack against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and it is difficult to refute that it has dented the BJP’s public image to some extent. When Vajpayee and Advani led the BJP in the 90s, there was a yearning among people for change and the BJP filled that vacuum. That space is now occupied by apolitical Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. To reclaim that space and to capitalise on the mood for change, the BJP needs to project an image and a leadership that elevates the party among the public.
And, at a time when the Congress Party is playing a rabidly communal card to woo Muslim voters resulting in a nationwide anger among Hindus, the BJP’s election campaign has to be led by credible leadership from within the BJP and not by co-opting “secular” leaders from the coalition or popular activists from the civil society. After many years, the electoral situation is ripe for the BJP to return to power at the Centre with renewed strength and if it makes the right moves, the BJP’s rise will be as sharp as the Congress’s free fall.
(The writer is a noted poll analyst)