Professor Sumit Ganguly, one of the leading US specialists on Indian foreign policy and domestic politics, has observed that Congress' convincing victory was helped along by the miserable campaign the BJP ran and the so-called Third Front being completely clueless of the issues at hand of the populace at large.
Ganguly, who holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and is the Director of Research of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, said on the foreign policy front, if the Obama administration attempts to engage India on Kashmir and tries to induce New Delhi to make concessions without 'forthrightly tackling Pakistan's support for terror in Kashmir and elsewhere', it would be a set-back for Indo-US relations.
In an interview with rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa, Ganguly said that the BJP rout clearly was the swansong of BJP leader L K Advani, whereas the question of whether Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi will now assume the mantle of the fallen party's national leader 'remains an open question.'
Were you totally surprised by the Congress' victory margin?
I was but not entirely. The BJP ran a miserable campaign and the Third Front, happily, was clueless. It also showed the disutility of a negative campaign where the BJP could not proffer any viable policy alternatives to Congress. All they could do was to harp on Congress' seeming inability to protect the country from terrorist attacks, and the Congress correctly underscored that the BJP's own record was hardly exemplary!
The so-called Third Front of course, completely failed to provide any coherent set of policy alternatives to either the BJP or the Congress. And, among other matters, the Community Party of India had the iridescent idea that they wanted the US to quit Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean!
How much did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's integrity and economic policies of his team, which he led with the likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Chidambaram and others have to do vis-à-vis Congress' spectacular performance?
There was undoubtedly the personal appeal of Manmohan Singh. He may not have done enough to put liberal economic reforms but he is widely seen as being decent, incorruptible and above the rough and tumble that is part of the warp and woof of Indian politics.
And, in terms of the global economic crisis, Congress' quick response to the adverse consequences clearly showed the sophistication and gravitas of the economic team he led -- the Reserve Bank of India lowered interest rates, Congress stepped up rural development programs and also benefited serendipitously from the huge pay hikes from the Sixth Pay Commission for the behemoth public sector. But, some of these populist policies, I fear, will have a long-term cost on the exchequer; debt to GDP rates are rising and India faces a significant budget gap.
In terms of the numbers, which obviously even pleasantly surprised even Congress die-hards, what does it do to the anticipated coalition government? Does it make it much more stable; also, sans the Left, make it much easier for it to move more forcefully on economic reforms and things like the nuclear deal?
Yes, it does at first blush. However, it still remains to be seen who exactly gets what in the coalition regime.
On the foreign policy front, will such a stable coalition led by Congress be able to use its bully pulpit much more effectively to take on Pakistan and Sri Lanka more forcefully -- being both tough on Pakistan but also move pro-actively on substantive and contentious issues, including Kashmir and resurrecting the composite dialogue from the position of strength?
I doubt that the composition dialogue will be resumed anytime soon. The fallout from Mumbai has been considerable. Also, given the distraction of the (Asif Ali) Zardari regime, I think the new regime would prefer to watch and wait.
What about Sri Lanka? Will it be able to tell the Sri Lankans forcefully that a military victory over the LTTE does not mean a political victory? Also, perhaps hark back to the Indo-Lanka accords on devolution of power to the Tamils in the North, etc?
Even though devolution is the standard argument, I think a better tack would be to insist on equal rights for all Sri Lankan citizens with a suitable constitutional guarantee. The Sinhala chauvinists will never all genuine devolution -- this is a pipe dream.
What about tensions that could arise in Indo-US ties over the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- considering that the Clinton Administration nonproliferation ayatollahs are back and running the show in this department -- and other issues like outsourcing and climate change?
More than the CTBT, which will require quite a seismic shift in (the US) Congress and the weapons labs, I think the Kerry-Lugar sentiments about engaging India on Kashmir are more disturbing. I genuinely believe that inducing India to make concessions to Pakistan on Kashmir without forthrightly tackling Pakistan's support for terror in Kashmir and elsewhere is not merely a dead letter but also an excellent means for setting back the cause of better Indo-US relations.
I can see the Indians engaging on climate change as it is actually in their self-interest though they will strenuously insist that they not be lumped with China. I do not see outsourcing as a huge issue -- it's time has come and gone.
On the domestic political front, is this the demise of BJP Leader L K Advani politically? And does (Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra) Modi now come to the fore as the new BJP national leader?
Even though Advani may not realist it, this is indeed his swan song. Whether or not Modi can transcend Gujarat -- and the albatross of Godhra -- remains an open question.
At the same time, ironically, even as Modi may be now projected as a national leader for the BJP, did the fact that the BJP trotted out Modi as its most vitriolic critic against the Congress, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the rest, prove counterproductive?
This is still too early to tell in the absence of exist poll data. Almost any view that I were able to express would be speculative.