The Mandate and the Market

if the election results announced on May 11 and May 13 were dramatic, the developments unfolding in Delhi and Mumbai over the next one week were even more so. It took more than two days for the shell-shocked BJP leaders to describe the mandate as fractured and to claim that the mandate belonged to neither the NDA nor the Congress and its allies. Considering that the NDA got less than 200 seats and the pre-poll alliance of the Congress a little above 200, the description was a bit of a truism. Yet with the sixty-strong Left bloc committing its unconditional support for a Congress-led coalition, there was none of that uncertainty that is normally associated with post-poll alliance-building. All those forces who had hoped to play kingmaker, or queenmaker, as Laloo Prasad put it, found themselves quite redundant.

But just when everything looked set for a smooth formalisation of the new regime, uncertainty struck from nowhere. Or from Dalal Street, to be precise. In recent years one has heard about betting (and even fixing!) over everything associated with cricket, but the clearly contrived convulsions that we got to see in the Mumbai share market was something novel for India’s parliamentary democracy. The political capital and the financial capital of the country were doing quite a tango. If Delhi was busy deciphering the mandate, Mumbai was being marauded by a nosediving share market. All this, we were told, was a mere expression of market ‘sentiment’ over the ‘irresponsible’ anti-disinvestment noise made by the CPI and CPI(M) leaders. Adam Smith may have only talked about the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, but these days the market seems to possess everything, motion as well as emotion, or shall we say, e-motion!

The market seemed to be revelling in issuing a historic rejoinder to the historic gains made by the Left in the 2004 elections. Propitiating the market with promises of continuing economic reforms became the topmost priority for all parties. Manmohan Singh asked the market not to panic and Comrade Surjeet hinted at the possibility of the Left cooperating with the Congress over matters of economic policy. All talks of reforming the reforms quickly boiled down to a renewal of the familiar rhetoric of reforms with a human face (or murder with compassion). And then came the big news – Sonia Gandhi ‘sacrificing’ her claim to Prime Ministership in favour of, who else, Manmohan Singh! All the anxiety and anger of the market turned readily into hope and glee! The man who was handpicked by the ruling classes in 1991 to initiate the package of neo-liberal economic reforms was now being promoted as India’s first prime minister without any political ‘baggage’! What better assurance about the reforms could anybody – Dalal Street or Wall Street – ask for?

The implications of having Manmohan Singh as India’s Prime Minister are bound to unravel in the coming days. Equally important for the Congress are the implications of the ‘sacrifice’ made by Sonia Gandhi. The decision on her part seems pretty well thought out, and reflects sound political judgement, and the vulgar xenophobic politics of the Sangh Parivar has given it an unmistakable aura of greatness. With this one decision she has taken much of the wind out of the Sangh’s ‘foreign origin’ sails, and she has also set the stage for a real recovery of the Congress. This ‘sacrifice’ is really an investment in the future of India’s oldest political party. The return of the Congress at the helm in Delhi and the moral high ground claimed by Sonia Gandhi have already put parties like the RJD, SP and BSP on notice. The Congress may have taken a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book of ‘coalition dharma’ to beat the NDA at its own game of alliances, but it surely looks forward to recovering all its lost ground to re-emerge as the Indian ruling classes’ premier choice.

This leaves the Left with a real challenge. Verdict 2004 has given the Left ample scope to effectively intervene in national politics and the agenda for such an intervention has also been brought to the fore by the polls. If the Left can assert independently and advance this agenda, the BJP can indeed be pushed back. But if the Left limits its role to defending the Congress-government in the name of secularism (and pro-poor reforms!) – like its earlier phase of collaboration with the Congress in the name of socialism – it will only subject itself to an ideological-political squeeze and the BJP will be there to exploit it to the hilt. q