CONGRESS' WINNING SPREE

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The track record of the United Progressive Alliance government and the positive public image of its leaders spoil the best laid plans of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine to capitalise on the anti-incumbency factor in the Maharashtra Assembly elections.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Mumbai and New Delhi

AS the counting of votes for the Maharashtra Assembly elections began on the morning of October 16, Pramod Mahajan, Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) national general secretary, was on a flight from New Delhi to Mumbai. His hopes were also flying high then, as Mahajan told media representatives later. As the man in charge of the BJP's campaign in the first important political battle after the Lok Sabha elections, Mahajan was sure that his party in combination with the Shiv Sena would overthrow the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance and return to power in the State after a gap of five years. The briefing he gave his colleagues in the BJP and to sections of the media a day earlier not only conveyed this certainty but raised visions of how this change would provide an impetus to the political struggles of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi at a rally in Bhiwandi.-VIVEK BENDRE

But when his flight landed in Mumbai, in about two hours, Mahajan disembarked to the news that grounded all the grand visions he and his party harboured: the people of Maharashtra had returned the Congress-NCP combine to power and the verdict left no scope for the BJP and the Shiv Sena to engage in political manoeuvres of the horse-trading kind with victorious Independents or those belonging to the smaller parties.

This lack of space for political manoeuvring is most disconcerting for the BJP and some of its associates in the NDA, such as the George Fernandes-led Janata Dal (United). There are several reasons for them to be flustered about this aspect. But the most important one is the realisation that the Maharashtra verdict attained its present qualitative dimension essentially on account of the assumption of office of the UPA government at the Centre and the positive image the UPA leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and NCP president Sharad Pawar, have acquired among the masses.

When the BJP and the Shiv Sena started preparing for the Assembly elections in August they were, by all indications, on a strong wicket. The combine had won more seats than the Congress-NCP alliance in the Lok Sabha polls and a break-up of the results in terms of Assembly segments showed that it had a lead in 147 of the 288 seats. There was also a strong anti-incumbency feeling against the Congress-NCP government.

The combine's leadership moved into high-gear political action based on the realisation that the ascent of the UPA to power and the events preceding it - Sonia Gandhi's "sacrifice" of the Prime Minister's position - had struck a chord among large sections of the population and may help the ruling alliance make up some ground.

This perception was reflected in the statements of NDA leaders that they did not see the Maharashtra elections as a referendum on the Central government. After all, they said, the UPA government had assumed office only four months ago and this period was not enough to judge its performance. However, the internal assessment among sections of the NDA, including the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the JD(U), was that a victory for the BJP- Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra was crucial to advance efficiently the realpolitik schemes against the UPA government.

The campaign tactics were formulated keeping both these factors in mind. Hindutva was used only in limited doses and the main target of the campaign was the State government's commissions and omissions. The campaign was also calibrated in such a manner that parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the rebels of the Congress and the NCP who had a chance of winning were not antagonised. Mahajan's statement stressing the "relevance and importance of the BSP" in Maharashtra's social firmament and the covert support (including financial assistance) given by the combine to several Congress-NCP rebels highlighted this tactic.

A senior BJP leader revealed the reason for this tactic to Frontline during the campaign. "It was designed to make the smaller parties and Independent MLAs see us [BJP-Shiv Sena] as the first preference in the event of a hung Assembly," he said. But the verdict as it finally emerged made a mockery of all these meticulous calculations. The impact of the UPA government's ascent at the Centre as well as the positive image of its leaders were good enough to overcome the largely unimpressive and widely criticised rule of the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra. Clearly, the goodwill generated by Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Sharad Pawar helped the State leadership of the Congress-NCP alliance get another chance in power.

FOR the BJP and some of its allies in the NDA, the lack of manoeuvring space in the State means that there is lesser room for realpolitik initiatives against the Central government too. The plans that were being formulated to virtually lay siege to the Central government will have to be shelved, at least for the time being, essentially because they were based on the BJP-Shiv Sena coming back to power.

Launching initiatives of this kind is bound to become particularly difficult because the BJP and the other constituents of the NDA are not in a position to expect concrete political-electoral victories in the near future. The NDA constituents are not in an advantageous position in the States that will witness Assembly polls in the short and medium terms. Elections are due in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana early next year and in all three States the NDA, as of now, does not have a winning chance. Elections are due in 2006 in West Bengal and Kerala, where the BJP or other NDA constituents are not in the picture.

The smaller parties like the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which were counted by sections of the NDA as possible allies in the event of a hung verdict in Maharashtra and in the anti-UPA moves at the Centre, cannot contribute much in the present context. As Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh told Frontline: "The rout these parties suffered in Maharashtra has sort of taken out the sting in their tail."

The impact of the Maharashtra debacle would be felt in equal measure in both the BJP and the Shiv Sena. The first signals of this have already come in the form of the resignation of M. Venkaiah Naidu - or removal, as some of his detractors in the party like to portray it - as BJP president and the appointment of L.K. Advani to the position. This change is by all indications only the beginning of the post-poll tremors in the BJP. Advani's return is being perceived by large sections of the BJP as a clear indication of the repudiation of the moderate line pursued by leaders such as former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Venkaiah Naidu and the re-emergence of the core Hindutva line.

Along with this, there is also the criticism within the party about the way in which Mahajan handled the Maharashtra campaign. Evidently, this inner-party campaign is being guided by the other three BJP stalwarts - Arun Jaitley, Uma Bharati and Sushma Swaraj - who are gunning for the third important position in the BJP after Vajpayee and Advani. Mahajan supporters, in turn, have started complaining that it is ludicrous to hold only their leader responsible for the defeat when the maximum number of seats were lost by the Shiv Sena. In fact, pointed out a Maharashtra BJP leader considered close to Mahajan, the BJP part of the campaign was successful because "the proportion of our victory to the number of seats we contested was higher". But this defence is unlikely to be of any use to Mahajan in his struggle against other second-generation leaders in the party.

In the Shiv Sena, chief Bal Thackeray's son Uddhav and nephew Raj have been locked in a power struggle for long and this has been cited as one of the reasons for the party's defeat. By all indications, this power tussle would only intensify in the days to come and that does not augur well for the Sena. Particularly so because in the context of the defeat large sections of the Sena rank and file are increasingly turning to the view that the party is steadily losing its very reasons to exist as a political force.

NCP leader Sharad Pawar.-RAJEEV BHATT

ALL this should help the UPA stabilise itself as a political entity and as a ruling dispensation at the Centre. But there is a proviso to the successful completion of this process: the constituents of the UPA, particularly the Congress, should draw proper lessons from the verdict. The message to the Congress is inherent in the verdict in the form of higher number of seats for the NCP, which contested less number of seats than the Congress. This shows that the mandate is for a government where the Congress follows "coalition dharma" and does not take unilateral policy initiatives.

The verdict, however, certainly means popular approval for the individual leadership qualities of Sonia Gandhi, who campaigned vigorously and proved that her success in the Lok Sabha elections is not a one-election wonder. According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, former Member of Legislative Council in Uttar Pradesh and political analyst, Sonia Gandhi has arguably emerged as the tallest leader in the country after the Maharashtra elections. "The stigma that was being sought to be attached to her through the foreign origin campaign," says Tyagi, "has been thoroughly rebuffed. But the verdict has also made it clear that she cannot hope to better the prospects of the Congress merely on the strength of her charisma." Tyagi's view is that the higher number of seats won by the NCP shows that the Congress should show more commitment to the principles of secularism and economic equality. "Equally important," he adds, "it is high time the Congress had an organisational network strong enough to capitalise on Sonia Gandhi's charisma."

The difference between the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra is basically the difference between their organisational machineries. The NCP's organisation was, obviously, good enough to exploit Pawar's charisma. Whether this strength secures the Chief Minister's post for the NCP or not, there is no doubt that the party's influence in the State and Centre governments will increase in the days to come. The manner in which the NCP handles its growing influence and adapts it to the needs of a coalition will be an important factor that would make or mar the process of consolidation and stabilisation of the UPA.

The Maharashtra verdict has increased the Central government's responsibility to meet the people's expectations. But for the time being UPA leaders can feel happy that their track record in the five months in power has earned them an important victory in the first major electoral battle after assuming office.

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