Engrossing electoral battles tend to become fairy tales with a twist. Good does not defeat evil; it is never quite as moral as that. But a victor does suddenly become a huge definition of good.
And so pink papers, generally strident guardians of private sector interests, choose a hushed silence over the Aam Aadmi Party's vision of nationalised airports, which would take us back to the antiquities of 1969; or the more recent splurge into Subsidy Raj. A honeymoon, of course, is no time for reports on clumsy manoeuvres. So an AAP minister is forgiven lapse of manners, not to say premature hubris, when he stops the screening of a Satyajit Ray film in order to deliver a speech after arriving late. Another minister who unleashes vigilantes on doctors in a hospital gets an indulgent pass. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gets away with amnesia on past corruption of current benefactors in Congress.
Such foibles will evaporate, although not without raising some questions about credibility, as general elections begin in earnest. The principal question before the electorate in 2014 will be quite different: stability. Who can provide a stable five-year government for an India groping through an economic and confidence crisis? And which alliance has the better set of policies to restore India's faith in itself?
Corruption is a vital concern; but no one has exclusive claims on honesty. Look east, if nowhere else. Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Chouhan, Raman Singh have been in power, some for a decade or more. No one accuses them of sleaze. Both Congress and BJP understand the need to offer a stable platform. This is why Rahul Gandhi, who is visibly averse to the politics and personality of Lalu Yadav, deigned to give the convicted Bihari leader a few parsimonious minutes of his time, setting off renewed speculation about an election alliance. Congress is anxious to partner TRS in Telangana, or face the heart-stopping possibility of being wiped out in Andhra Pradesh. It continues to woo the DMK in Tamil Nadu, despite Karunanidhi's rebuff. In Uttar Pradesh, it wants the company of Mayawati, although she is as cool as the Arctic.
The BJP is getting better purchase in this bargain hunt. It has set aside discomfort within to restore grey sheep B.S. Yeddyurappa to the saffron pen. Raju Shetti, a small but important ally has signed up in Maharashtra; prodigal Chandra Babu Naidu is expected to trudge back later this month. The Chautalas in Haryana are waiting for a nod; a conversation has begun with Asom Gana Parishad in Guwahati. If wishes were horses, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee would be in the NDA stable (treat this is a small but not negligible pun).
A party which cannot offer a stable option will fade, no matter how well-intentioned. Imran Khan had a very strong base in Pakistan, having fought three general elections. Despite doing well across variables, Imran Khan could not stretch popularity into seats. After stability, security. When a party has not thought things through, remarks by leaders stick in perception, as will Prashant Bhushan's views on a referendum over the Indian army in Kashmir. Nor can you extrapolate Delhi decisions on to the national scene easily. Reservations of university seats, an AAP decision, panders to parochial sentiment. It is not an option for India. Is a blasé elite losing the difference between micro and macro, thanks to media's insatiable demand for theatre over value? This year's general elections are not going to be merely another date on the calendar. They will determine the direction of the next decade. A weak, nervous government will ensure further collapse of the economy, even as it loses control over fault lines that always threaten the calm of our country. The demand for Telangana is only one such fissure.
Fortunately, a stable coalition is not that difficult to engineer. No one needs 100% of the vote to win. In our system, you do not need even 50%. In the first general election, of 1952, despite being propelled by the powerful impetus of newly-won freedom, Congress got only 45% support. But this was sufficient to win 364 out of 489 seats. Today, a coalition which can get 35% or a bit more can tell its tailors to start stitching new pyjama-kurtas for the swearing-in.
The only PM to rule comfortably for a decade was Nehru; and even he seemed frayed by 1962. His daughter Indira Gandhi became PM in 1966; by 1975 she had to suppress democracy to survive. Congress, on the upswing in 2004, is bleeding in 2014. It may have to remain content with some rest and recovery. The big story now is whether forces hostile to BJP-led NDA can deny it the numbers for stable governance. We shall know if there is a fairytale ending by May.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.