Assembly Elections 2012 announce a further weakening of the political authority of the Congress, which leads the UPA at the Centre.
RIGHT from the time the Election Commission of India initiated the electoral process in the five States of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur in January, the 2012 Assembly elections were billed as a semi-final of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the event, the outcome has produced a seemingly unexpected result: it seems to have advanced the date of the final. This has happened essentially on account of three factors. First, the stunning reverses suffered by the Congress, especially in the two big States of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and the consequent shrinkage of its political authority in the national polity in general and, in particular, within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which it heads at the Centre. Secondly, the resurgence of regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh and the Akali Dal in Punjab, which in turn has given a fillip to the regrouping and consolidation of regional parties in different parts of the country. Thirdly, the exploitation of this climate by the Trinamool Congress, the second largest party in the UPA, to launch its own political games and create problems for the Congress, both within the government and outside.
The first signal of this problematic impact of the electoral outcome on the Congress started emerging even as the results were coming out. Dinesh Trivedi, Trinamool Congress Minister in the Union Cabinet, even commented that he anticipated midterm elections sooner than later. He qualified his statement by adding that if he were S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, he would certainly try to force midterm Lok Sabha elections because the current political context in the country's most populous State would help the S.P. win the maximum number of parliamentary seats.
Several UPA leaders, including those in the Trinamool Congress, felt Trivedi's comments could well be attributed to his party. For, the Trinamool Congress, too, is of the view that it can increase its number of seats in the Lok Sabha in the event of midterm elections. That will enhance its bargaining power with the Central government, whatever be its composition. The party is apprehensive that facing the Lok Sabha elections as per the current schedule, in 2014, will not be advantageous since it would have been in power in West Bengal for three years by then and would obviously face some level of anti-incumbency, a Trinamool Congress leader told Frontline.
Ironically, a few days later Trivedi found himself becoming a possible reason for a midterm election, when the Trinamool Congress' supreme leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took umbrage at the Railway Budget presented by him. At the time of writing this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had apparently conceded Mamata Banerjee's demand to drop Trivedi from the Union Cabinet, but it still remains to be seen whether this will really turn into a factor that can cause a midterm election. At any rate, the political context created by the Assembly elections remains. Regional forces outside and within the UPA have been strengthened by the results and they will now seek to throw their new political weight around.
Political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh pointed out that the March 6 results indicated that regional parties could significantly increase their strength in Parliament if general elections were held soon. He also added that the prospects of a midterm poll were strengthened by the growing solidarity among the regional parties on the issue of federalism, especially with regard to the opposition to the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) mooted by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Indra Bhushan Singh is also of the view that going by the current trend, avoiding a midterm election will have its own unhappy consequences. The government will continue to limp and drag itself, half paralysed by the controversies, corruption scandals and ineptitude as the leading party of the UPA and its Prime Minister are constantly forced to look over their shoulders at allies either derailing or distorting its policies, he pointed out.
The problems for the Congress and the UPA and the prospects of midterm elections, however, are only part of the larger political and social impact of the Assembly election results. At the larger level, the outcome points to a weakening of the two mainstream national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, too, suffered sharp reverses at the hands of regional forces, particularly in its one-time bastion of Uttar Pradesh. The saffron party managed to hold on to power in Punjab in association with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), but here, too, its seat strength and vote share dropped. However, the party scored a significant victory in Goa and minimised its anti-incumbency slump in Uttarakhand. Clearly, the trends in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab as well as the overall assertion of regional forces bring no cheer to the principal opposition. Already, several leaders of the BJP as well as the Sangh Parivar have expressed doubts whether the saffron party will be able to capture power at the Centre in the next general elections.
Put differently, the 2012 Assembly elections have signified a combat between two types of anti-incumbency: one against the prevailing government in the respective States and the other against the Centre, which was perceived as the fulcrum of corruption, inefficiency and inflation. The electorate's simple message was that they are unhappier with the Centre than with the State governments. This helped the BJP get some consolation victories, but not the kind of political upper hand that it hoped to gain.
Commenting on the results, Organiser and Panchajanya, the English and Hindi mouthpieces of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar, stated: Election results in Uttar Pradesh have posed several questions and their solutions have to be found well in time, otherwise 2014 general elections can become agneepath' [path of fire] for it [the BJP] and crossing it to reach the centre of power can prove to be difficult. The commentaries pointed out that the BJP was suffering from Congress patch and that the party had to think about the bigger army of leaders than workers. There is disconnect with its voters. So, it [the BJP] has lost half of its vote share in the last one decade, the commentaries pointed out.
According to a senior RSS activist of Lucknow, the January-February elections have changed the conventional anti-incumbency game plan. Under normal circumstances, the BJP would have been the natural beneficiary of the challenges and confusions faced by the UPA. But the results have shown that the BJP is not in a position to take advantage of the anti-incumbency against the Central government, in spite of a favourable situation created by developments such as the campaign against corruption led by Anna Hazare, the leader pointed out.
According to Sangh Parivar insiders, the BJP leadership will have to change its attitude and stoop to conquer if it is to make any headway before the next general elections. The current leadership of the party in Parliament must give greater prominence to BJP Chief Ministers, and proper inner-party elections must be held to select national leaders instead of appointing them through diktats from Nagpur.
Beyond the short- and medium-term effects, which mainly impair the two mainstream parties, the Assembly elections have also thrown up a significant long-term effect in the form of a generational change in the polity of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Two new leaders have emerged in the form of Akhilesh Yadav of the S.P. and Sukhbir Singh Badal of the SAD. Both the leaders signify a combination of the core identity politics of the two regional forces along with fresh ideas in the realms of politics, administration, development and economy. Thirty-eight-year-old Akhilesh Yadav, who literally shouldered the S.P.'s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, registered a big victory and ultimately took over the reins of the State as Chief Minister. His campaign was marked by slogans that not only catered to the core Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav and minority Muslim support base of the S.P., drawn essentially from rural farming and labour communities, but had value added to them in the form of ideas relating to modernisation and introduction of new technology for development. In short, Akhilesh Yadav presented a political premise that retained the S.P.'s core rural support base even while attracting new, urban voters, especially the youth, to his party. Sukhbir Singh Badal, son of Punjab's re-elected Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, changed the traditional parameters of Akali politics by moving away from the Panthic practices that had influenced it and highlighting a forceful development agenda.
Clearly, this signifies a re-invention of core identity and subaltern politics by powerful regional forces. It underscores a learning process, too, in these regional forces, one that has brought about the realisation that mere adherence to the core socio-political constituencies built up through identity politics will not suffice at a time when the number of young voters is increasing across the country. This learning process emphasises adding new segments to the party's support base through development-oriented, secular slogans, even while taking care to retain the politics based on core identity. Sooner than later, these trends are bound to be emulated in other States, too, lending new images, concepts and practices to polity. This process is bound to have a far-reaching impact on the state of political play in the country, too.
The success of Akhilesh and Sukhbir Badal is in direct contrast to the failure of the young scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, to make an impact, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. As in the Bihar elections of 2010, Rahul Gandhi failed to deliver a substantive political victory to the Congress. This, despite campaigning aggressively in Uttar Pradesh. He addressed 211 rallies in 48 days, more than one in every two Assembly constituencies. In spite of all this, the Congress could manage only 28 seats in Uttar Pradesh, six more than its 2007 tally. The Congress lost heavily in theist first family's strongholds in the State. In Amethi, Rae Bareli and Sultanpur, the Congress picked up just two of the 15 seats on offer. In 2007, it had won 10 seats. In Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi's pocket borough, the Congress lost all the five seats. In Amethi, only two of the five seats went to the Congress.
Central to this failure is the fact that Rahul Gandhi's political idiom and style of functioning have largely remained alien to the common people. The lack of a proper political orientation and the failure to follow up regularly on socio-economic-political initiatives contributed to this slide. Cases in point are the development and rehabilitation package that Rahul Gandhi conceived and initiated for the underprivileged weaving community of eastern Uttar Pradesh and the agitation that he led against the Mayawati government's acquisition of farming land at Bhatta Parsaul in western Uttar Pradesh. The weavers' rehabilitation package had a huge loan component, which was not acceptable to a large segment of weavers belonging to the Muslim community. In Bhatta Parasaul, the party failed to do any follow-up after aggressively initiating an agitation. The Congress youth icon needs to develop a steadier, studied and sustained style of functioning to carve out election victories and create a long-standing impact on the politics of the country.
Ironically, even after suffering a severe electoral defeat, sections of the Congress are of the view that the only solution for the party's travails is to make Rahul Gandhi the Prime Minister at the first possible opportunity. The argument of these sections is that since the party's future electoral prospects are in any case considered not too good, Rahul Gandhi must be made Prime Minister for some sort of a miracle to happen. More rationally, these sections also point out that there is a huge difference between the electoral choices of the people in the Assembly elections and in a general election.IN A MUDDLE
Clearly, the Assembly elections have left the two mainstream parties, particularly the Congress, in a muddled political situation where both do not seem to have any clear options, direction or leadership. The regrouping of regional forces, such as the S.P., the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, to form a third front, apparently free of the ideological burden of the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), also adds some unique political twist to this context. These regional forces, which have begun to act in concert on policy issues, will find a new centre of gravity in Mulayam Singh Yadav. The S.P. has become the largest regional force, with 224 MLAs, 22 Lok Sabha members and five Rajya Sabha members. The number of the S.P.'s Rajya Sabha members is bound to increase after the biennial elections for 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh on March 30. The S.P. has a huge vote-value, which will have a significant effect during the presidential election later this year.
However, the political gains of this grouping will be more concrete and will have a far-reaching impact at the national level if it is able to address the larger socio-economic concerns that have found expression in the verdict of March 6. The reverses suffered by the Congress and the BJP as well as the electorate's preference for regional forces are indicative of a rejection of the socio-economic policies pursued by the two mainstream parties. In Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, the pre-election situation, both in rural and urban areas, was characterised by fierce opposition to neoliberal pursuits in economic policy, especially while holding power at the Centre. The choice of regional parties also points to the electorate's desire to look at alternatives, albeit within the existing political parameters. Incidentally, these alternatives, within the existing political parameters, are not concrete, basically because these groupings do not have clearly defined policy perceptions, although the S.P. has from time to time opposed many facets of the neoliberal policies.
As things stand now, the results further highlight the political and administrative paralysis of UPA-II. Many segments of the government believe that since 2010 the UPA has run a lame-duck government. This would lead to greater political attacks by the opposition and greater torment by difficult allies of the Congress. Naturally, the Congress will have to change tack and opt for greater consultation with political forces in the opposition and within the UPA. In short, the Congress will have to refresh its tactics and manoeuvres by forging the right alliances, as Sonia Gandhi did before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Will the party find enough creative energy to embark on this path of reinvention before the general election? It is a question that has no affirmative answer at present. Separately, even if it does effect this rediscovery and come up with new political initiatives, regional players such as Mulayam Singh and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will still be big factors.