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The shape of things to come

Print edition : Nov 08, 2002

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The election results indicate which way the political wind is blowing.

THE results of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections have cleared a lot of the haze from the national political horizon. While the Congress(I) is now seen as going its own way without crutches, and more confident than before, the Bharatiya Janata Party is groping in the dark for a new strategy. The good showing has emboldened the Congress(I) enough to declare that "there is no alternative for us but to go it alone in almost all States". The BJP, on the other hand, is still looking for reasons for its poor performance. Unconvincing explanations such as "we fared badly because there was confusion about our stand on the issue of trifurcation", or "we could not expose the misdeeds of the National Conference enough" are offered by the party in an indication that it has fallen between the two stools of Hindutva and the compromises associated with coalition politics.

The contrast was striking at the headquarters of the two parties in New Delhi as the results started coming in. While there was jubilation at the Congress(I) office, a sense of foreboding hung over the BJP office.

The reasons are not far to seek. Jammu and Kashmir has become the symbol of India's fight against terrorism. The defeat of both the BJP and the N.C. proved that the people of the State had rejected the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's claim that it was effectively countering terrorism in the area. The fact that the people chose the Congress(I)'s candidates over the BJP's in the latter's stronghold of the Jammu region suggests that the Congress(I) is once again viewed as a party that can lead the State.

All India Congress Committee general secretary Oscar Fernandes said: "It is a mandate for peace and the fact that the Congress has got such massive support from the people shows they view us as the party that can bring peace and development." He said that the party had managed to show that it cared for the people. "Whenever there was a militant attack, or people got displaced because of such an attack, we sent relief for them. This was a gesture that the people appreciated, all the more because the government was certainly lacking in providing succour to these people."

According to Oscar Fernandes, the Congress(I) victory had a background that dated back to the day Sonia Gandhi took over as party president. Sonia Gandhi's strategy of reaching out to the suffering people irrespective of whether the party was in power in their State or not had been appreciated by them, he said. The Jammu and Kashmir election results, he said, proved this. "Except for Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Bihar, we are strong everywhere. Even in these States, our performance will be better than last time." The Congress(I) is aware that its bargaining power vis--vis other non-BJP parties has increased. If the party can win over 25 per cent of the votes polled and bag 20 seats in Jammu and Kashmir, where it had just seven seats, it certainly has reason to be confident.

Having fallen between the two stools of Hindutva and coalition dharma, the BJP could neither speak out openly in support of the trifurcation demand of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-backed Jammu State Morcha, nor criticise the N.C. strongly enough, though that party was held responsible for everything that went wrong in Jammu and other parts of the Kashmir Valley. Although the two parties contested against each other, they continued to be partners in the NDA government. As a result, the voter was left wondering about their credibility.

The party's debacle has triggered a debate over whether giving up its own core issues in favour of opportunistic politics has cost it dearly. "We have not given up the core issues such as the construction of the Ram temple, or the demand for the abrogation of Article 370. The only thing is that we cannot implement them unless there is a purely BJP government. Until such time, we would have to stick to the NDA agenda," said party general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. He said that the BJP suffered because of "the injustice of the National Conference and its misrule" and not because the people had rejected it.

Congress(I) workers believe that the raking up of the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin at this time is an indication that other political parties have accepted the fact that the Congress(I) will come back to power at the Centre. "They have no propaganda [planks] left... , so they are raising these petty issues," said Oscar Fernandes. He cited the instances of Sonia Gandhi being warmly welcomed wherever she went, whether it was in Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir or Uttar Pradesh. Oscar Fernandes pointed out that in the last round of Assembly elections the Congress(I) had defeated either the BJP or other NDA constituents in almost all States.

While the Congress(I) 's level of self-confidence has grown, taking it slightly ahead of the other non-BJP parties, in the NDA camp the BJP's allies are likely to stick closer to the BJP for their own political survival. The Congress(I) is, however, unruffled by the possible consolidation of pro-BJP forces. "Just wait and see. The simmering discontent in Gujarat against the BJP, though it may not be visible now, will show itself up at the time of elections," said Oscar Fernandes.

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