The magnitude of the BJP's victory has triggered a debate among the Opposition parties on presenting a united, secular response to the threat posed by communalism.
THE landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat has come as a shock for the Opposition parties. While the Left parties squarely blamed the Congress(I)'s defeat on its isolationist policy, the Congress(I) put the blame on the BJP for fomenting riots in areas that were its strongholds and creating a strong communal divide, after the Godhra incident. Senior Congress(I) leaders also blamed the "undue" confidence the high command reposed in Sankarsinh Vaghela, the newly inducted Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president, and the soft Hindutva line that the party adopted, leaving the voters sceptical about its secular ideology.
The results have dealt a body-blow to the Congress(I), which boasted at the Chief Minister's conclave in Mout Abu in November that it was the only party that could rule at the Centre. When the results came, the party's strategists were too shocked even to react coherently, let alone give a credible explanation for the debacle. Another shock was the fact that the BJP won all the three seats in the byelections to the Rajasthan Assembly. This certainly does not augur well for the Congress(I) as the State is going to the polls in 2003.
The Congress(I) obviously slipped on charting out a strategy in order to combat the BJP's communal politics. To a question why the Congress(I) did not foresee and counter the BJP and its affiliates' communal propaganda, party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy had no answer. Making it obvious that the party was ill-equipped to challenge Chief Minister Narendra Modi's highly inflammatory style of communal campaigning Jaipal Reddy said: "When you go to battle equipped with a certain strategy, you cannot change it overnight."
Clearly, the Congress(I) fared so badly also because it failed to carry everyone along in these elections. Several Congress(I) leaders admitted that in future the strategy of alliances would need a re-look. "Strategies can be changed according to the situation emerging in different States," Jaipal Reddy said in reply to a question whether the division of non-BJP votes owing to the presence of parties such as the Nationalist Cogress Party (NCP) and the Samajwadi Party(S.P.) had played a role in the Congress(I)'s defeat. No leader was, however, willing to concede on record that the Congress(I) slipped as a result of its over-confidence. "We have been defeated by the communal polarisation brought about by the BJP and by engineering riots after the Godhra incident and nothing else," Jaipal Reddy said. Kamal Nath, the party general secretary in charge of Gujarat, was with Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi until late in the night on December 15, trying to analyse the reasons for the debacle.
Although the party's official line on Gujarat will come only after the Congress Working Committee deliberates on the issue, various leaders have ascribed different reasons for the poor performance. Vaghela said that the party lost because the BJP used Hindutva as its weapon and played "politics over dead bodies of Godhara and riots". Kamal Nath said: "It was a victory of fear and terror for the BJP and a defeat for progress and development in Gujarat." He said that during the election campaign the BJP worked for generating fear in order to divide people on communal lines and that led to the defeat of the Congress(I). He said it was clear that the BJP gained because of the riots; he pointed out that the party fared badly in areas such as Saurashtra, which were unaffected by riots.
THE Left parties, though, were unsparing in their attack on the Congress(I) for failing to ensure a one-to-one fight with the BJP. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said that the Congress(I) and its president Sonia Gandhi were responsible for diluting the fight against the BJP by not heeding the Left's advice. Speaking to Frontline, he said: "I kept repeating time and again that there should be unity of democratic and secular forces, but the Congress(I) never heeded. In most of these meetings Sonia Gandhi too was present. Still they refused to listen." Surjeet added that the BJP's win in Gujarat was a "danger signal" for the "unity and diversity" of India. "It is a warning to the secular forces. If the Congress(I) fails to learn any lessons even now and if the non-BJP parties fail to unite, the country's secular fabric will be destroyed. There is a very real danger of the BJP replicating the same style of politics in the States going to polls next year," Surjeet said.
According to Surjeet, so far two trends were visible in the BJP's style of functioning. One was because of the compulsions of coalition politics, wherein it was seen to be reluctant to antagonise its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners. The second strategy involved its calculation about the gains in case it pursued a rabidly, fundamentalist line. "In this case the second strategy has been seen to give them massive gains. So there is a real danger of this strategy being adopted in other States too. It is high time the Congress(I) and other secular parties learnt their lesson," Surjeet said. He said that it was a warning signal for the Congress(I) that the BJP had won all the three Assembly seats in Rajasthan too. "If they don't learn their lesson now, they will lose Rajasthan," he said.
D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, said that the "communal divide and polarised social fabric" created by the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Sangh Parivar outfits had led to such an electoral outcome. "The BJP's victory is a setback for the cause of secular democracy," he said. Stating that the results have thrown up a new challenge before secular democratic forces, he said that while fighting communal fascism uncompromisingly at the ideological and political levels, other issues such as poverty, hunger and unemployment should also get adequate attention in the coming days.
Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav, who had campaigned extensively for the Congress(I), said the poll verdict would not have any impact on States going to the polls in 2003. "It is unfortunate for the country that the BJP has won the elections after engineering riots and fomenting communal passion," he said. Yadav, reaffirming his support for the Congress(I), said that the Gujarat Assembly elections were fought primarily on local issues and its results would not affect the poll prospects in other States.
The worst blow to the Congress(I) was that it lost its decade-long hold over the tribal belt in Gujarat. It also lost the Mashru seat, where Vaghela's son Mahendrasinh Vaghela was its candidate. The result in Mashru was supposed to be an indicator of Vaghela's acceptability in Gujarat. A small consolation for the party came in its good showing in the Saurashtra region, where the BJP held sway in the last elections. This time the Congress(I) managed to snatch many seats from the BJP, making it clear that anti-incumbency factor was certainly at work, though in a small measure. This was also obvious from the fact that many senior Ministers and Assembly Speaker lost the election. Central Gujarat, which was rocked by communal violence, was the region where the BJP made major gains. Conceding defeat, Vaghela has offered to resign. He is expected to meet the party president soon.
IN Rajasthan, the danger bells have started tolling for the Congress(I) and it may have to grapple with a strong anti-incumbency factor when the State goes to the polls in 2003. Severe draught, its mismanagement, and starvation deaths have generated a feeling of antipathy among the people for the ruling Congress(I), and the party may pay a heavy price. The BJP not only retained the Bali seat, which fell vacant after its leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was elected Vice-President, but also wrested Sagwara from the Congress(I) and Bansur from the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BJP won the Bali and Sagwara seats by margins of over 13,000 votes. Sagwara, a tribal constituency, has traditionally voted Congress(I). The Congress(I) put up some resistance in Bansur, where it restricted the BJP's winning margin to 2,000 votes.
Political observers in Rajasthan blame Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot for the sorry state of affairs. The Chief Minister, they say, has concentrated all power in himself, reducing his ministerial colleagues to mere puppets. The results will undoubtedly boost the leadership of Union Minister of State for Small Scale Industries Vasundhara Raje, the BJP's new State president.
The Congress(I)'s victory in the prestigious Nainital Lok Sabha seat in Uttaranchal, where its candidate Mahendra Pal Singh trounced the BJP's Balraj Passi by a margin of over 100,000 votes, came as a major consolation for the party. The seat had fallen vacant after N.D. Tiwari became the Chief Minister of the State. The party's chief election campaigner and State Information Minister Indira Hridayesh said: "First, we won the Assembly election in February this year. Then N.D. Tiwari won the Ramnagar byelection with a thumping majority. Now, the Congress(I) has completed a hat-trick by winning Nainital." Former Chief Minister and BJP leader Bhagat Singh Koshiyari said the party failed to capitalise on the "corruption issues involving some Ministers". He also alleged that the Congress(I) misused the official machinery.