Mixed signals

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

Three wins after 11 defeats. Sonia Gandhi.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Three wins after 11 defeats. Sonia Gandhi.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

The results of the Assembly round have infused some energy into the Congress and forced the BJP to take a realistic look at itself.

THE immediate impact of the just-concluded Assembly elections in five States was felt in the Lok Sabha on December 10 when Parliament resumed after a gap of one and a half months. A number of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) members were seen virtually mobbing Sandeep Dikshit, Congress member from East Delhi constituency and the son of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. At the same time, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the Bharatiya Janata Partys (BJP) member from South Delhi who was the partys choice for the chief ministership in the Assembly elections, had a forlorn look as he sat in the front row of the Opposition benches.

The Congress had got the better of the BJP three-two. The Congress retained Delhi and recaptured Rajasthan and Mizoram, while the BJP managed to hold on to Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The result in Delhi brought unexpected cheer to the Congress and left the BJP shocked. Barely two days before the votes were counted, BJP general secretary Ravi Shankar Prasad told mediapersons confidently that the worst-possible result for the party from the Hindi heartland States Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi would be 3-1. According to him, in the partys consideration Mizoram was not a winnable State and the going was uphill in Rajasthan.

The unexpected loss in Delhi changed the entire complexion of the results for the BJP. The shock value of that defeat was amplified because the BJP leadership had time and again during the campaign described this round of elections as the semi-final leading to the final, that is, the Lok Sabha elections. The leadership had claimed that the BJP, in association with its partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), was sure to win the semi-final and the final.

In the UPA, beyond the euphoric reactions, there is the realisation in significant sections of the Congress and its allies that the upper hand gained in the semi-final may not add up to much in the final.

A senior Central Minister of the Congress from the South summed it up thus: We are smiling now and that is the reflection of having lived to fight another day. The leader said the three wins were indeed heartening as they came after a string of 11 Assembly-election defeats over the past three years but cautioned that the leadership and the rank-and-file should see it as a platform to regain lost ground and not as a signal of a real political comeback by the party and the UPA.

A closer look at the results does emphasise the point that the 3-2 result does not signify a real political victory for the Congress. The Delhi victory was largely the product of the personal charisma of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and the perception about the development work undertaken during her two stints in office.

In Rajasthan, the vote was essentially against the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government and not a positive vote for the Congress. The return to power in Mizoram after a gap of 10 years also does not have a larger political import. The fact that the whole State of Mizoram constitutes a single Lok Sabha constituency underscores this.

According to the South Indian leader, it would be dangerous to read into these results anything more than what they actually are: the results of a few Assembly elections. We need to keep in mind the BJP experience five years ago. It had won handsome victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2003, but could not take these gains to other States in the Lok Sabha elections held a few months later, in 2004, he said.

He added that it would be wrong for the Congress to see these results as signalling the end of issues relating to internal security, price rise or inflation. In actual terms, what it has provided the Congress and its partners in the UPA is some breathing space and room for manoeuvre before the campaign begins for the Lok Sabha polls, he said.

This analysis, however, does hold a consolation for the Congress: its main rival, the NDA, did not gain politically. Throughout the run-up to the elections the BJP leadership was convinced that the national issues that the party raised of internal security, price-rise and inflation were the real issues in these elections. Leaders such as the BJPs prime ministerial candidate Lal Krishna Advani, party president Rajnath Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and strategist Arun Jaitley went at them hammer and tongs.

In fact, the BJP expected its rhetoric on internal security to have the maximum impact in Delhi. The huge turnout in Delhi on November 29, when the Mumbai terror attacks were brought to closure (Rajasthan went to the polls five days later) especially in the urban constituencies, was cited as proof of the success of the campaign. However, the results showed that the people came out in droves to endorse Sheila Dikshit and her record as Chief Minister.

Clearly, the BJPs political agenda, which revolved around jingoist feelings over the threat of terrorism, internal security, Pakistan-whipping, and the not-so-camouflaged anti-minorityism, has been squarely rejected by the majority of the voters. In fact, BJP insiders admit that the party won Madhya Pradesh only because the low-profile Shivraj Singh Chauhan moved away from the terror-focussed rhetoric of star campaigners such as Modi and concentrated on core bijli-sadak-paani (electricity, roads, water) issues.

The results underscore the fact that the time has come for the BJP to get over its euphoric phase, which began when it retained Gujarat in early 2008. This euphoria was accentuated in May 2008 when the party made its foray into the south by capturing power in Karnataka. The jolts in Delhi and to some extent in Rajasthan should help bring the party to the ground.

It is evident that the rejection of its internal security rhetoric has had a confusing effect on the partys leadership. This was highlighted in the contrasting views that Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley expressed on December 8. Rajnath Singh said Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh had ridden back to power on the development agenda and conceded that local issues rather than the campaign based on the terror threat decided the elections. Rajnath Singh further added that the Lok Sabha elections, too, could well be decided primarily on local issues.

Arun Jaitley, however, maintained that internal security and the terror threat continued to be major campaign issues for the party. Some close supporters of the BJP president told Frontline that Rajnath Singhs comments on the preponderance of local issues have to be seen in the context of the fact that the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was instrumental in defeating the Congress in at least two dozen seats in Madhya Pradesh, thereby helping the BJP to retain power in the Hindi heartland.

The BSP may not have fulfilled the expectations of forcing hung Assemblies in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, but there is little doubt that the party registered its presence significantly in four of the five States barring Mizoram and caused considerable damage to the Congress.

The party opened its account in Delhi by winning two seats and improved its tally in Rajasthan (up to six from two last time) and Madhya Pradesh (up to eight from two) and maintained its tally of two seats in Chhattisgarh.

Apart from these wins, the BSP polled over 10 per cent of the vote in 51 seats in Madhya Pradesh, in 38 seats each in Delhi and Rajasthan and in at least 11 seats in Chhattisgarh. Such incremental progress is ominous for the two mainstream parties. The BSP grew in exactly the same way in Uttar Pradesh and in the process reduced the two mainstream parties to political insignificance.

The rise of the BSP and the gains made by the Left parties in two crucial southern States through the formation of alliances with the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Chandrababu Naidu led-Telugu Desam Party (TDP) could well act as a fillip to a prospective third formation. The AIADMK and the TDP have chosen the Left parties as their allies in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh respectively despite the fact that they were former partners in the NDA. Their departure from the BJP fold is an indication that the BJPs jingoist nationalism holds no appeal for a large number of regional parties.

Thus, in a broader sense, this round of Assembly elections has thrown up a new political context that can lead to a new balance of power. The political context is such that it has infused some energy into the Congress organisational system and forced the BJP to take a more realistic look at itself even as the BSP and the third formation are poised to break new political ground. Obviously, it is a context pregnant with new and exciting possibilities.

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