ROUND ONE TO CONGRESS

Print edition : March 28, 2003

The results of the February 26 Assembly elections rudely shake the Bharatiya Janata Party's confidence, and if the countdown for the Lok Sabha elections began after the Gujarat polls, round one goes to the Congress(I).

in New Delhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Shillong, Meghalaya, on February 13.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

WELL before the Union Budget was due, the smart money was on an exercise that would bear the heavy imprint of the political cycle. The BJP was on a heady roll since the triumph in Gujarat and rapidly shedding its recently acquired diffidence about its hard-edged and combative political style. And on the premise that only losers wait out a full five-year tenure before venturing back into the electoral arena, the party was gearing up for early general elections. The only question that remained was one of timing.

The BJP, however, did not have much time to savour a Union Budget, tailor-made for the party's restive middle-class constituency. The following day brought news of a comprehensive electoral rout in the State Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, and expectedly indifferent performances in the northeastern States. A noticeably chastened leadership went into an introspective huddle, to emerge with two alibis. The party had suffered on account of infighting within the State leadership, said Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. For others of a more nonchalant disposition, the BJP's rout in Himachal Pradesh was entirely on account of the incumbency disadvantage, which had become something of an iron-clad rule in electoral politics in recent times. Though a small State, Himachal Pradesh was a test case for the resurrection of the BJP's aggressive politics of religiosity. This was the deliberate intent of fielding the riot-scarred Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, as one of the party's principal campaigners in the State. The Congress had been pushed on the defensive in Gujarat, forgetting its commitments to the minorities and seeking in vain to portray itself as a more responsible vehicle for the aspirations of the moral majority. And to complete the triumph of majoritarian politics, the two-term Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, had begun swearing undying fidelity to the core causes of Hindutva. This suggested a distinct possibility that the Congress would approach the more trying round of Assembly elections due before November - in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi - in much the same manner as it had done in Gujarat. All that remained, it seemed, was for the BJP to determine whether it would go in for parliamentary elections concurrently with three States and Delhi, or wait for a more opportune time in the first quarter of 2004.

With the Himachal results, all the betting was off. If the BJP was as prone to the incumbency disadvantage as any other party, it made little sense to combine Lok Sabha elections with the contests to the State Assemblies due later this year. That would confuse issues of responsibility between the Centre and the States, perhaps neutralising whatever anti-incumbency sentiment the BJP could garner in its favour in the four Congress-ruled States.

The Congress has been unmistakably buoyed by the recent round of elections. It has perhaps learnt the valuable lesson that the politics of identity and revenge are, in the popular appreciation, subordinate to the demands of accountability and governance. And if the countdown to the next national elections began after the Gujarat polls in December last year, round one has clearly gone to the Congress(I).

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The BJP had additional reasons for worry since it is going through a delicate leadership transition in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Newly appointed State unit presidents are yet to find their feet in the new environment and accurately assess the strength of each of the different factional currents. If infighting was an adverse influence in Himachal Pradesh, it is likely to be so in these States too, where the party has to contend with a Congress leadership that is fairly well entrenched and secure.

Another factor that has rudely disrupted the BJP's confidence is the deepening political quagmire in Uttar Pradesh. Having bound itself firmly to the Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) apron strings, the BJP has become a hapless spectator - and often a victim - of the mercurial Chief Minister Mayawati's whims. Sessions of the legislature are an occasional spectacle in the State and are invariably reduced rather rapidly to farce. If U.P. was a setback for the BJP in the last parliamentary elections, it was a virtual disaster in the Assembly elections that followed. Without at least holding its ground in U.P., the BJP could well end up the loser in the next Lok Sabha elections. And for that, it needs a swift and smart exit from its uneasy cohabitation with the BSP - a course of action that it is yet to summon up the courage to adopt. Indeed, a swift exit could conceivably be made, though that would not be very smart. It would only reduce the State to an administrative shambles that would leave the BJP still worse off .

It is a deep source of worry to the BJP that the only context in which it has been able to escape the incumbency disadvantage has been in riot-battered Gujarat. The constituencies in which the party registered its most dramatic gains, in fact, were precisely those that had been most seriously affected in the pogrom of the minority religious community last year. This has impelled some sections within the party into advocating a new phase of activism over the Ayodhya project. But public interest remains at a low ebb and the judicial restraints have been especially irksome. Failing some radical judicial formulations from the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court - which has now instituted archaeological evidence rather than possession or the statute of limitations as the appropriate doctrine to judge a title suit - the BJP is unlikely to make much mileage on this front.

In this context, the third successive victory for the Left Front in Tripura is surely something for the BJP to chew over. That should give it some pause in its effort to raise the principle of the incumbency disadvantage to the status of an immutable law of political life. Indeed, the few recent departures from the principle of the incumbent being necessarily the loser - notably in Tripura, West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh - illustrate what precisely the BJP lacks in its own approach to governance.

In Nagaland, the redoubtable S.C. Jamir was voted out of office. In the context of the recently resumed dialogue with the insurgent Naga leadership, this is seen as a positive development. Whether the bitter internecine rivalries will subside as a consequence of Jamir's departure though, still remains to be seen. Meghalaya threw up an indecisive outcome. But the conventional inducements of post-election politicking were deployed with good effect to bring in a Congress(I) Chief Minister. The expected rapprochement with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - which could have set a trend for future contests on the larger arena - did not quite take place. But in the months to come, the Congress(I) will undoubtedly have to consider the whole range of alliances with estranged parties - notably the NCP, the Samajwadi Party and one of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu - with more than the usual seriousness.

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