Cover Story

Decisive defeat

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi arrive at the party headquarters in New Delhi on December 8 after the announcement of the results of the Assembly elections in four States. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal in the midst of supporters celebrating the party's excellent maiden performance. Photo: Tsering Topgyal/AP

At the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on December 8, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, L.K. Advani, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The Congress is battered in the latest round of Assembly elections in the north. The results swing the BJP way and announce the arrival of the AAP in Delhi.

ONE unmistakable central message and several nuanced signals with momentous import—that could sum up the political pointers in the December 8 results of the latest round of Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram. The principal, unambiguous message of the voters in these States is that they are disenchanted with the Congress, which has led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruling at the Centre for the last 10 years. The other messages underscore the position of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal opposition party at the national level, as the main beneficiary of this disillusionment with the Congress. In concrete terms, it meant that the BJP had crushing victories in the big States of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and a less-spectacular win in Chhattisgarh.

Rise of the AAP

The message from Delhi is in the form of the gains made by the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which demolished the Congress in the State and left the BJP well short of a majority. The AAP emerged as a powerful principal opposition in the Delhi Assembly in its maiden contest. The BJP is the single largest party in the Assembly, but the AAP’s performance has resulted in a hung Assembly and it is not clear whether there can be a functional government in the National Capital Region.

A Lucknow-based senior activist of the BJP pointed out, “Our party was indeed looking forward to a clear 4-0 victory in this round of elections and even claims to have achieved this, but the reality is that the AAP has forced us to be content with a 3.5 score out of 4.” The senior activist and many of his associates in Uttar Pradesh hoped that this new political streak would not upset their well-laid-out plans to march to power at the Centre in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress managed to retain the north-eastern State of Mizoram and that too with a thumping majority. However, political success in the State has relatively minor implications at the national level since the State has only one Lok Sabha seat compared with the 73 seats spread across the other four States.

The rejection of the Congress has been driven essentially by a double anti-incumbency factor for the party. Political trends in the last three rounds of Assembly elections held in 2012 and 2013 pointed to this; the overall situation showed that there was an anti-incumbency factor working against both the State government and the Central government. This played out in different permutations and combinations in different rounds of elections. In the Punjab Assembly elections in 2012, the Congress could not win despite the Akali Dal-BJP government facing the ire of the people. The party lost Goa, too, to the BJP because of this factor. Only in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh did the Congress manage to win, perhaps because the anti-incumbency factor against the BJP was greater than that against the Congress at the Centre.

This time around, the Congress lost Delhi and Rajasthan, led by Sheila Dikshit and Ashok Gehlot respectively, to the double anti-incumbency phenomenon. Congress regimes in these States, were credited with several popular welfare schemes but they were not enough to overcome the negative image of the Manmohan Singh-led Union government, which faced several corruption charges and was widely perceived as inefficient. Mizoram, of course, did buck the trend, and that is indeed consolation, albeit a small one.

The Congress leadership, including party president Sonia Gandhi, acknowledged that the mistakes and deficiencies of the party resulted in its defeat, though initially most of the blame was sought to be placed on State leaders. The refusal to accept the failures and foibles of the Central leadership does not augur well for the course correction process that Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi promised in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. At the same time, Rahul Gandhi promised to take lessons from the AAP experience and get the Congress more involved with the people. The BJP’s Chief Minister candidate in Delhi, Harsh Vardhan, too echoed the sentiment when he said the AAP experiment had political value.

Many political observers went one step further and rated the AAP’s performance as the most momentous of all the messages from these elections, widely referred to as the semi-final before the general elections expected to be held in mid-2014. This assessment is based essentially on two factors. One is the fact that the AAP showed that even in a historically bipolar State like Delhi a third alternative could be built by taking up issues and concerns of people in a committed manner. Second, and more important, is the AAP’s refreshing emphasis on transparency and accountability in the practice of politics.

Surendra Kishore, a Patna-based political analyst who has consistently followed the trajectory of the AAP, believes that both these characteristics of the party are bound to have far-reaching reverberations in many parts of the country in the short, medium and long term. “In any case, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were expected to bring in a generational change in national politics, with Narendra Modi leading the BJP’s campaign as its prime ministerial candidate and Rahul Gandhi’s anointment as Congress vice-president. Clearly, these two leaders and their styles of functioning signify a movement away from the leadership conventions set by, say, Lal Krishna Advani or Sonia Gandhi. But what the AAP and its convener, Arvind Kejriwal, have done is to bring in new qualitative dimensions to this generational change, in terms of political content and practice,” said Surendra Kishore.

Historically, said Surendra Kishore, the AAP’s performance paralleled the manner in which the N.T. Rama Rao-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) emerged in Andhra Pradesh in 1982 and stormed to power in about nine months of its formation. “Similarly, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power in the first election it fought, in 1986, after a six-year agitation. But both the TDP and the AGP relied heavily on regional politics and the whipping up of passions on issues of identity. The AAP experience is different because the party has not employed any form of identity politics to advance its cause. Of course, the party is yet to take up concrete positions on various important questions, ranging from terrorism and communalism to economic liberalisation and land reforms. But the fact remains that the AAP leadership has steadfastly pursued secular values in its conduct and campaign and has made bold to take on corporate interests. The point is how well they can develop it,” said Surendra Kishore.

He and other observers pointed to the various symbols that the AAP and Kejriwal employed to highlight the difference in the party’s political content and practice. The manner in which autorickshaw drivers were organised, thus turning the common man’s vehicle into a symbol of the David versus Goliath fight in the political arena, was one such. The consistent refusal to relate to any type of identity politics in terms of community or caste or region appealed to a sizable section of the youth, who saw in the politics of the AAP the harbinger of a new beginning in Delhi politics.

Interestingly, the AAP appropriated the catchy slogans of both the Congress and the BJP. It took away from the Congress the aam aadmi slogan which drove the latter’s successful campaigns in 2004 and 2009, and from the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar the Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai slogans. Above all, it combined conventional and modern campaigning methods by adopting aggressively both door-to-door contact and social media interventions. Evidently, all these had a special appeal to large sections of the electorate in Delhi.

Third front

The AAP’s performance is significant at the level of larger alternative politics, too, at the national level. The idea, referred to by some leaders and parties as the third alternative or the third front, has found expression among the Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and regional and identity-based secular political outfits, such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.). Some other organisations, such as the Janata Dal (United) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), have also evinced interest and talked aloud about the idea from time to time.

The Left has consistently held that such an alternative needs to develop on the basis of policy-oriented and programme-based mass action involving different sections of the population. However, it has not been able to launch large mass movements in the northern States and expand its influence beyond its traditional strongholds in southern and eastern India. The AAP trajectory in Delhi does hold important lessons for these parties, particularly in terms of developing mass movements on specific issues and converting those into political advantage.

Would these parties and the AAP exchange ideas and try and seek directions and dimensions to the third alternative concept? While there are no tangible indications of the same, the AAP’s proclamation after the Delhi results that it planned to develop into a nationwide presence does contain possibilities in this direction.

Modi mirage?

As for the BJP, sections of its leadership, including party president Rajnath Singh, have sought to use the results of this round of Assembly elections to strengthen the hands of Narendra Modi in the campaign for the general election. Thus, very many leaders, including the designated Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, credited Modi for the party’s victory. Clearly, the idea is to enhance Modi’s image as a popular leader who is fit to be Prime Minister. But a closer analysis of the Modi campaign shows that his impact was decisive in the States where the BJP already had strong leaders. Thus, the BJP won 17 of the 21 seats in which he campaigned in Rajasthan, 14 of the 15 in Madhya Pradesh and four of the six in Chhattisgarh. His success rate in Delhi is evidently poor. Modi campaigned in four constituencies and the BJP lost all four, two to the Congress and two to the AAP.

This factor is slowly entering the discussions in different echelons of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Supporters of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan have begun pointing out in BJP circles that their leader is the only BJP Chief Minister to have retained his position for a third term with a higher seat and vote share. Under Chouhan’s leadership, the BJP added 22 seats more to its tally while marching to a third term. Raman Singh retained Chhattisgarh with one seat fewer than what the BJP won in 2008. Modi, too, retained Gujarat in 2012 with a seat fewer than the tally of 2007, though the BJP won by-elections and improved the score.

Chouhan’s supporters also made the point that his form of governance and political leadership were more inclusive and sought to draw new communities and support bases, including the minority communities, to the BJP. Equally significantly, the BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, tweeted congratulatory messages to the designated Chief Ministers but made no mention of Modi’s contribution.

The results of the November-December round of elections have many portents and possibilities. On the one hand, they signify the continuing and rapid downward slide of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. But along with that they point to the possibility of an alternative based on taking up people’s issues and concerns in a systematic and dedicated manner. At this point, the AAP’s gains have come out of people’s emotive involvement with a limited number of issues in a targeted manner. The consolidation and growth of this phenomenon will depend largely on how far the party is able to reach out to the larger India, both geographically and programmatically.