Regional parties to the fore

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST


YOGENDRA YADAV with Sanjay Kumar and Oliver Heath

THE outcome of the first round of Assembly elections since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government assumed office at the Centre marks a setback both for the BJP and its principal opponent, the Congress(I). It confirms that the political turf on which electoral competitions take place continues to be the same as in the last decade. As States become effective arenas of political choice, parties with a strong local base have an advantage. In the final analysis, this round of elections belonged to regional parties - the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The verdict is unlikely to shake the BJP-led Government the way the November 1998 Assembly elec tions did. But it will not leave the Government totally unaffected. One has to read the fine print to understand the message of the verdict.

When the election dates were announced, the setting seemed perfect for the NDA. The BJP and its allies had obtained a secure majority in the Lok Sabha. Nothing seemed to have happened during the honeymoon period to cause popular disaffection. Besides, un like the 1998 round, the cycle of elections favoured the ruling formation this time. The BJP was not in power in any of the four States that went to the polls, and could therefore escape the effects of the anti-incumbency factor. The Congress(I) and the RJD ruled Orissa and Bihar respectively. The BJP had friendly regimes in Haryana and Manipur but was not a part of these governments. At any rate, the governments in these two States were new and not very unpopular. No wonder the BJP went into the campai gn in a triumphant mood. Various pre-election surveys did not sound the alarm bells for the BJP.

It is against this background that the BJP's setback should be understood. The BJD-BJP combine secured an overwhelming majority in Orissa. But analysts were quick to notice that the BJP's success ratio was significantly lower than that of the BJD: it cou ld win only 38 of the 63 seats allotted to it (a success ratio of 60 per cent), while the BJD won 68 of the 84 seats it contested (a success ratio of 81 per cent). What is more, the BJD is only six seats short of a majority in an Assembly that has 15 MLA s from other parties and independents.

The results in Haryana were not just disappointing, but humiliating for the BJP. While its ally, the INLD, secured a majority on its own, the BJP recorded one of its worst performances: it was outmanoeuvered by its ally and rejected by the people.

The worst disappointment was to come in Bihar. Ever since their resounding victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and its allies were fairly confident of winning the Assembly elections. Despite hiccups, they managed to keep together their grand coal ition, which was aimed at ending the RJD's 'jungle raj'. This round of elections was clearly the moment they were waiting for. The results, however, stunned the BJP leadership. At the end of a close race, not only did the NDA fail to secure a majority - let alone the two-thirds majority it claimed it would win - but its final tally of 124 was less than the number mustered by the RJD and its allies. The NDA tally included six rebels, who were officially disowned but fought on the symbols of the BJP and its allies, and one independent. The Bihar shock was so intense that the BJP did not even notice its relative success in Manipur where for the first time it secured six seats on its own.

It would be hasty, however, to read this setback for the BJP as a verdict against the NDA government. The CSDS-NDTV post-poll survey found that on the whole the Central Government's rating was positive, with the majority of respondents in each State eith er somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with its performance.

IF the BJP faced upsets, the Congress(I) fared no better. It had very little to lose in Bihar, but it needed to show the signs of a revival after breaking with the RJD. The final tally of 23, its worst ever in Bihar, is hardly the kind of result that wou ld inspire confidence in the party's future. Its defeat in Orissa was a foregone conclusion after the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections. The final results only showed that the party's central leadership's moves and indecision had made matters worse. The Congress(I) did have something at stake in Manipur: it needed to show that the official Congress(I), rather than its breakaway group, the MSCP, was the real inheritor of the Congress(I) legacy. In the event, the day belonged to the MSCP. It did not w in a majority but it clearly outperformed the Congress(I). The grand and the somewhat unwieldy alliance forged by the Congress(I) eventually proved to be more of a liability.

If the BJP's real defeat came in Bihar, the Congress' real defeat was in Haryana - not because it had mustered any hope of winning, but because it needed to win there. Having been out of power for one term, it was the Congress(I)'s turn to rule. But the party's inability to create a credible State-level leadership, its failure to occupy the oppositional ground against the discredited Haryana Vikas Party (HVP)-BJP regime, and a suicidal move to support Bansi Lal meant that it was out of the reckoning for the second successive round of elections. It did surely improve its tally from nine to 21, but such statistical consolation is of little help in the face of a defeat. Two consecutive defeats could mean the beginning of a terminal decline. It is early to say that the Congress(I) in Haryana will go the Uttar Pradesh or Bihar way, but it faces an uphill task now.

In more ways than one, the latest round of elections marked a triumph for regional parties. Although the governments in Orissa and Bihar may be coalitional in form, there is no doubt that the BJD and the INLD will be in the driver's seat. It is still unc lear as to who will form the governments in Manipur and Bihar, but there is no doubt that the MSCP and the RJD have gained in political stature and will set the political agenda. Although the BJP is the largest group in the NDA in Bihar, the selection of Nitish Kumar as the leader of the combine points to the acceptance of the critical role of its allies. Whoever governs Bihar, it is clear that the social change ushered in with the 1990 Assembly elections is irreversible. In that sense the future politi cs of Bihar will be played out on an agenda that is not favourable to the BJP.

The dominance of regional parties can be seen in the preference for government formation. The CSDS-NDTV survey asked the respondents to name their preferred party and recorded the answers separately for the BJP and/or its allies. Only in Bihar, the BJP w as preferred to its allies; elsewhere, the BJP on its own received little support. The BJP was named as the preferred choice by 4 per cent of the voters in Haryana, 8 per cent in Orissa, and 12 per cent in Bihar. It fared somewhat better as a partner in an alliance, with the NDA being named as the preferred government of choice by between 17 and 22 per cent of the respondents in each of the States. However, the stark fact remains; on this question, the INLD in Haryana and the BJD in Orissa were ahead of the BJP by 26 and 12 percentage points respectively. The RJD was the most preferred choice in Bihar.

The BJP's low standing, in relation to either its principal opponents or its pre-poll allies, seems to suggest that the party is unable to perform well when the competition takes place in a localised setting. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP deri ved much of its strength from a presidential-style campaign by A.B. Vajpayee. But when it comes to preference for State leadership, the survey brings out the weakness of the BJP.

IN Orissa and Haryana, there was hardly any support for the choice of a BJP leader for chief ministership. In Bihar, although the NDA entered the contest without projecting a chief ministerial candidate, a BJP leader was expected to emerge as a real alte rnative to the RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav. But the survey shows that there was very little support for a BJP leader. The only BJP name that was put forward by just 4 per cent of the voters was that of Sushil Kumar Modi. Ram Vilas Paswan of the Janata Dal (United) and Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party were backed by 12 per cent and 6 per cent respectively. As in other States, it was a regional party leader who emerged victorious. The most popular choice for chief ministership was Laloo Prasad Yadav - w ho was preferred by 22 per cent. Rabri Devi was also named by 5 per cent, thus giving the Laloo Prasad-Rabri Devi combine a figure of 27 per cent. In Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala was the undisputed leader, with 44 per cent, while in Orissa Naveen Patnaik dominated with 44 per cent.

In many ways the Congress(I)'s case was the opposite: it had too many high-profile leaders. In Haryana, Bhajan Lal and Bhupendra Singh Hooda were prefered by 14 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. In Orissa, J.B. Patnaik was named by 14 per cent, Hema nand Biswal by 4 per cent, and Giridhar Gamang by 2 per cent.

The results are thus clearly a verdict on the performance of the respective State governments. The majority of the people in Orissa and Bihar held a negative opinion about the government's performance while the voters in Haryana had a positive view of th e party in power. Nearly 49 per cent felt that the INLD Government was the best among the three governments Haryana had in the last decade.

It is hard to consider the verdict of Bihar as a positive one on the State government's performance on the developmental front. If the RJD did not face the kind of debacle the other non-performing governments suffered, it was largely because the election s got polarised once again on caste lines and on the issue of social dignity.

Neither is the verdict an uncritical endorsement of the regional parties. There is little room for them to be complacent. The INLD and the BJD were not able to repeat the kind of victories scored by Devi Lal in Haryana in 1987 and by Biju Patnaik in Oris sa in 1990. While the INLD has been able to show the BJP its place, the BJD faces the challenge of saving itself from meeting the same fate that the Janata Dal met in Gujarat and Rajasthan or the United Goan Democratic Party (UGDP) in Goa. The MSCP has n ot been able to secure a clear majority and would need to seek the BJP's support tactfully. As for Bihar, there is a real danger of forgetting that the RJD actually lost the elections, that its seats tally dropped by 40 and that it is far below the major ity mark that it crossed on its own in the previous elections. While the results have proved that attempts to reverse the trend of 1990 will not have popular approval, it has also shown that non-performance will be penalised. Similarly, the emergence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) as the largest Left group in Bihar holds a lesson for the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which have lost touch with the ground realities in Bihar. The defeat of t he HVP in Haryana and the Manipur People's Party (MPP) in Manipur holds a lesson for regional parties. The new incumbents know that they need to perform, otherwise they could meet a similar fate.

Impressive turnoutCSDS Team

EVERYONE expected a low voter participation in this round of Assembly elections. 'Election fatigue', it was thought, would affect the voters as parliamentary elections were held less than six months ago. Moreover, there were serious election boycott call s by various extremist groups in Bihar and Manipur. Viewed in this context, the final voting figures in all the four States that went to the polls, was impressive; in fact, the percentage was higher than that recorded during the Lok Sabha elections. This is in keeping with the general trend of the last decade, with the States emerging as effective arenas of political decision-making.

The increase in the turnout was small in Bihar and Orissa, but substantial in Manipur, where the Assembly elections always witness a high turnout. The pattern in Manipur is, however, not uniform. By Manipur's standards, the voter participation was margin ally lower during this election than in the previous two Assembly elections. However, a drop of two to three percentage points only shows that the poll boycott call given by the Nationalist Social Council of Nagaland (NSCN) had very little impact.

Haryana has always recorded a fairly high turnout for Assembly elections. At 69 per cent, the turnout this time is just one percentage point lower than last time. The turnout in Bihar was around 62 per cent, as in the previous two elections. If the elect oral rolls of Bihar were made more accurate, perhaps the overall turnout rate would have looked more impressive. But there are significant internal variations. In South Bihar, the participation fell by 10 percentage points, while Central and North Bihar recorded an increase of four to five points over the previous figures. The difference can be attributed to a combination of greater competitiveness and intense caste mobilisation in these two regions. Besides, the threat by extremist organisations to dis rupt the process seems to have worked more in the far-flung areas of South Bihar. The seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) recorded only 40 per cent turnout, a drop of as much as 24 per cent.

In Orissa, the turnout fell by 15 percentage points compared to the 1995 elections. The fall was greater in the backward and predominantly tribal belt of Western Orissa than in the better off coastal region. Incidentally, the devastation caused by the cy clone last year does not seem to have affected the enthusiasm of the electorate. The fact is that 1995 had an exceptionally high turnout whereas it was unusually low in the recent elections. The figures for all the elections held in the previous decade s how that the turnout this time was on a par with the average. Perhaps the 1995 elections promised a beginning of the change of the old order in Orissa, which has continued its grip over power. It drew more voters from the lower rungs of society. The inab ility of the 1995 verdict to deliver a regime that could become a vehicle of social change has brought the voters back to the same level of political participation as in the past.

The CSDS-NDTV post-poll survey enables us to unravel the turnout figures to see the main reasons why some people did not vote. Past research shows that the predominant reason for non-voting are usually routine factors such as being unwell or out of stati on. This time too these reasons were cited by 38 per cent of the non-voters in Bihar, 52 per cent in Haryana and 62 per cent in Orissa. Political apathy usually accounts for much less than expected. It ranged from between 16 and 20 per cent in each of th e States. No signs of election fatigue were found. Two issues, however, cause concern. Problems connected with electoral malpractice figure in a major way in Bihar, where 12 per cent of those who did not vote could not do so because someone else had alre ady voted in their name; and 16 per cent were either prevented from voting or did not venture out due to fear of violence. In reality the figures could be higher; the respondents may have understated their fears.

In Haryana, 30 per cent of the people who did not vote were unable to do so because they did not have the voter identity card or other identification papers that are mandatory in the State. These persons either did not go to vote or were turned back by t he polling officials. A more careful investigation is needed into this, for the identity card scheme should not turn into a selective disenfranchisement of some sections.

If we look at indicators of interest and participation in the elections other than voting, Haryana emerges as the State with the most intense elections. Although, surprisingly, the voters in Orissa report a greater level of interest in the campaign than those in the other two States, all other indicators show Haryana to be in the lead. In general, the number of voters who reported attending at least one election meeting, or receiving door-to-door campaigners, or taking active part in the campaign is fai rly high in all the three States. This is a positive indicator for a healthy democracy.

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