THE outcomes of the Assembly elections in four northern States, which account for one-fifth of India's Lok Sabha seats, confirm what was widely suspected - that the party of the Hindu Right that leads the coalition government at the Centre is in big political trouble. It is another matter that some pre-election public opinion surveys, notably the India Today and Aaj Tak-C-Voter poll, and even exit polls got it wrong, possibly for reasons associated with wishful thinking and political bias. Hyped up, virtually triumphant 'Mood of the Nation' opinion polls done as recently as in January this year and intimating the "Return of the Militant Hindu" seem to have fallen on their face on the Gangetic Plain.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have been routed in Uttar Pradesh and decisively defeated in Punjab, the new State of Uttaranchal, and Manipur. With these losses, the party finds itself in a pathetic situation in State capitals: of India's 28 States, the BJP will now wield power in merely four, only one of which, Gujarat, is a major State. The party's main national-level opponent, the Congress, will now rule in more than a dozen States, including some large States in both North and South India, and an assortment of regional parties, including two major BJP allies, alliances, and Left parties rule or will assume power in the other States. With political federalism asserting itself in a big way through the democratic process, the Centre's commitment to constitutional provisions and norms upholding federalism and State rights will be on fresh test. The institution of the Governor, appointed by the Centre ('in consultation' with the State's Chief Minister) and acting as the Centre's agent as a rule, will be watched even more closely than it was for its adherence to constitutionalism and fair play. The performance of Uttar Pradesh's Governor, who has a background as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary, will come under the microscope, especially after the constitutionally dubious statements he has made on Ministry formation in the State.
The BJP will also find its space for decision-making and policy-making severely reduced in the period ahead. Its say in who will be India's next President will also be seriously constrained. The best course for the ruling party as well as for all the others that matter in the polity would seem quickly to agree on ascertaining the wishes of India's outstanding and exemplary incumbent President and, if the answer is in the affirmative, offering him a second term.
THE debacle in India's most populous State, a base of communal mobilisation that served as the platform for the BJP's rise to power at the Centre, is a crippling blow from which the party will find it virtually impossible to recover before late-2004, when the fourteenth general election is due. Notwithstanding the enhanced militancy of the organisations of the Saffron Brigade, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's threat to start building the Ram temple in Ayodhya on or around March 15 (regardless of what the law, the judiciary and the government say), and the sabre-rattling of the Vajpayee government on the India-Pakistan border, the evidence from the U.P. Assembly elections suggests that the masses of Hindu voters have responded no differently from voters from other communities. They have rejected, in impressive measure, the politics of communal mobilisation and jingoism, which goes hand in hand with extreme ineptitude in governance and policy-making on basic issues.
The decline in the BJP's vote-share by more than a dozen percentage points between 1996 and 2002 in India's heartland State sends out a powerful message that the ruling party's stock among the people is in hopeless decline. It appears that there is virtually no chance of the fallen stock recovering before the next general election. It will not be much of an exaggeration for political opponents to claim at this stage that the Vajpayee government has lost its legitimacy. All players, major, middling and minor, in the political system can be expected in the weeks and months ahead to respond to this message.
Crucially in U.P., the BJP now faces a dilemma - to make a bid to share power at any cost, or to sit in the opposition. Opting for the latter course means making a virtue of necessity. This may give the BJP a certain space for manoeuvre. It may allow the party more effectively to direct fire at its bugbear, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) led by Mulayam Singh, as well as its main national opponent, the Congress. Aside from the challenge of putting together a majority in the 403-member Assembly, which inevitably means breaking the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and possibly the Congress, a Mulayam Singh-led government will need to contend with an aggressive VHP mobilisation, which can be modulated to suit the situation. BJP tacticians claim that sitting back, letting the Governor examine his options, and allowing opportunity to the S.P. and the Congress either to come together or bicker and 'make a mess' of the inherently unstable situation makes tactical sense. This is indeed the course ostensibly chosen by the BJP's parliamentary board after several Sangh Parivar veterans publicly called for it. However, given the stakes in holding power in this battleground State, doing a deal with the formidable BSP spearheaded by the Dalit leader, Mayawati, holds attraction. Will the BJP be able to resist temptation?
THE economy, although technically still in growth mode, is going through a serious recessionary downslide. Aside from a fiscal deficit seriously out of line, the numbers are not looking good at all. Privatisation and liberalisation continue to be the mantras offered against all manner of economic troubles and ailments. In the midst of its economic and political troubles, the Union Cabinet has, with ham-handed timing, cleared a decision to amend the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 to facilitate layoffs and retrenchment as part of its 'labour reform'. This sets up for the government a major confrontation with virtually all the trade union organisations in the country. The Shiv Sena's public threat to pull out of the National Democratic Alliance if the government does not reconsider its decision within a month, and Bal Thackeray's public announcement that the Sena is willing to join hands, if necessary, with leftist trade unions to fight the anti-worker move, is an early intimation of the trouble that lies ahead for the Vajpayee government on this critical issue.
"Being in the opposition is the best game in town," wrote a British statesman in the early nineteenth century. From now on, the opposition parties in India's Parliament and all those opposed to the anti-secular, anti-democratic, chauvinistic and anti-people policies of the government led by the Hindu Right will have tremendous opportunities to gain the upper hand and dictate terms in the polity.