If I were Prakash Karat, I would topple the Congress-led UPA government in the monsoon session of Parliament starting in July. Why? Because the Congress faces a terrible election climate right now, which might improve by May 2009, when the next general election is due. That’s an excellent reason for Karat to force an early election in November 2008.
Indian voters are highly sensitive to and outraged by high prices, and inflation is currently raging at its highest level for a decade. Inflation is driven mainly by international trends in oil and food. However, the world economy is slowing down, and commodity prices look like drifting downward.
By May 2009, the prices of petroleum, foodgrain and edible oils could be much lower than they are today. An election in those circumstances would suit the Congress fine. It would not suit the Left Front (LF). Hence the time looks ripe for Karat to pull the plug.
The LF has supported the Congress-led government reluctantly for four years, as a distasteful necessity to keep the BJP out of power.
If neither the Congress nor the BJP fare well in the next election — and some pundits believe that the two together may get less than half the seats in Parliament — then a Third Front could come to power, as in 1996-98. This Third Front would, of course, be an unstable, ramshackle coalition that will collapse after two or three years.
But in those two or three years the Left Front could dictate policy, and possibly get the prime ministership.
Now, the Left Front is in poor shape in Kerala and West Bengal (after Singur and Nandigram). But it may be no stronger next May. Even if the Left loses all the 19 parliamentary seats it gained in 2004, it may still win enough to control a Third Front government. That is a prize worth seeking.
In the three key bastions of the Left — West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura — its main foe is the Congress. Hence the LF does not wish to go the polls as a Congress ally. Rather, it wishes to portray itself as dead opposed to Congress policies causing inflation and subservience to the United States.
To make this portrayal credible, the LF must topple the Congress soon. If it remains in harness with the Congress till next May, it will not easily be able to distance itself from Congress policies. Knowing this, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee told his partymen last year that he expected the Left Front to topple the government some time in 2008.
The Congress is in two minds about an early election. Cautious old hands point out that all election outcomes are uncertain, the more so for incumbents. Political power is difficult to attain, and once attained should be savoured to the last possible moment.
Remember, the BJP in 2004 went for an early election, but was thrashed soundly. Inflation was under control in 2004, but is going through the roof today. Opting for early polls in these circumstances is hara-kiri, say the cautious old hands.
But the party also has risk-takers with different views. These say that trying to stay in power by constantly surrendering to the Left Front makes the party look spineless, pathetically hungry for the crumbs of power, and hence not worth voting for.
Besides, spinelessness does not guarantee the Congress a full term — the LF has reasons to topple the government anyway. So, why not go on the offensive? Why not sign the nuclear deal with the US, and dare the LF to do its worst?
In the election campaign that follows, Congress can portray the Marxists as unpatriotic bootlickers of China, wishing to keep India weak. Voters are angry about power cuts in state after state.
The Congress can argue that a nuclear deal will facilitate a quick increase in power generation. India’s nuclear power stations today operate at barely half their capacity for lack of uranium fuel. A nuclear deal will increase power availability not only in the long run but also in the short run, by facilitating uranium fuel imports.
The Congress can portray the LF as public enemies denying farmers and town-dwellers urgently needed electricity.
What about anti-incumbency, and the high inflation that has contributed to Congress defeats in a string of recent state elections?
These carry risks for an early general election, of course, but things may be even worse next May. International prices of food and fuel are so volatile and unpredictable, say the risk-takers, that no election strategy should be based on predictions of their future path. Yes, world prices may be lower next May than in November, but the reverse is also conceivable.
Perhaps the US will slip into deep recession in the next few months, causing a crash in world prices of food and fuel, just in time for a November election.
Many economists predict that the US economy will recover in late 2008 or early 2009, and that recovery could drive up commodity prices again by May 2009. So, November might be a better election date even from an inflation viewpoint.
The budget this year was designed to give Sonia Gandhi the option to go for an early election. Its centrepiece was the farm loan waiver, which has been increased from Rs 60,000 crore (benefiting 40 million farmers) to Rs 71,000 crore (benefiting 43 million). The electoral impact of the waiver will be fresh in a November election, but will become much fainter by May 2009.
None of this guarantees success for the Congress in November, admit the risk-takers. Indeed, the Congress may get beaten regardless of when the election is held. But in that case it is surely better to take the offensive and go down with colours flying, improving long-term prospects.
Intra-party debates on this will reach boiling point in the next few weeks. I suspect that the clinching debate will be the one within the Left Front. Prakash Karat has husbanded his trump cards for four years. The time looks ripe to play them.