Yet another debacle

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party is routed in the elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

IN yet another electoral setback in less than two months, the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to the Congress(I). The defeat came close on the heels of similar reverses the party suffered in the elections to four State Assemblies held in February.

Of the 134 seats in the MCD, the Congress(I) won 107 and the BJP only 17. (In the 1997 elections, the BJP won 79 seats and the Congress 45.) While the Jharkand Mukti Morcha (JMM) opened its account by winning two seats, the Janata Dal (Secular) won two seats and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) one. Five seats went to independents. The Congress(I) polled about 46 per cent of the votes and the BJP 30 per cent.

Significantly, the BJP has lost the civic polls when all the seven Lok Sabha seats in the State are held by the party. The party lost all the ten seats in Sadar, former Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana's constituency, and all the eight seats in Chandni Chowk, the constituency of Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Vijay Goel. It could win only in six of the 42 seats in former Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma's Outer Delhi constituency. The party also suffered reverses in the Lok Sabha constituencies of senior leaders Jagmohan and B.L. Tiwari. The seats in the Kalkaji Assembly segment, where the BJP had not tasted defeat in the last four decades, also went to the Congress(I). The BJP put up its worst performance in East Delhi, considered one of its strongholds. Several senior leaders, including Mayor Shanti Desai, Deputy Mayor Rajesh Gehlot, chairman of the standing committee Prithvi Raj Sawhney, Leader of the House Mahesh Chander Sharma and former Mayors Meira Kanwaria and Yog Dhan Ahuja, failed to make it to the MCD. The only saving grace for the party was the South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, represented by V.K. Malhotra, where it won four of the 18 seats.

Analysing the results, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit told Frontline that though the BJP had claimed that the results would be a referendum on the performance of her government, they had turned out to be a referendum on the party's performance at the Centre. "There has been total disillusionment with the BJP not only at the local level but also at the Centre. It is not totally an anti-incumbency vote," she said. She added that corruption and the abysmal performance of the MCD were also factors that swung votes in favour of the Congress(I). Sheila Dixit said that the handling of the economy, the Gujarat riots and social issues had exposed the BJP. Kamal Nath, the All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of the party's affairs in Delhi, stated that the mandate was against the communal politics of the BJP.

Sahib Singh Verma resigned from the post of national vice-president of the BJP owning moral responsibility for the defeat. He blamed the local unit and factionalism in the party for the dismal performance. However, the BJP had no uniform view about the reasons for the debacle. While Khurana blamed it on the Union Budget and the demolition drives and the closure and relocation of polluting industries in Delhi as possible causes, some leaders such as Goel cited other factors, including anti-incumbency sentiment and the mismatch between the growing population and the civic amenities available in the national capital region. Mange Ram Garg, president of the Delhi BJP unit, told Frontline that the party accepted the defeat and that it planned to appoint a committee to look into the causes.

Whatever be the claims, it cannot be just because of internal bickerings, the Budget and lack of coordination in campaigning that the BJP lost. Apparently, the results symbolise the rejection of both the communal politics of the party and the economic policies the Central government pursues. This is evident from the fact that the party's efforts to polarise the electorate with its communal rhetoric failed. The Godhra incident, the Ayodhya issue and even the Prevention of Terrorism Bill were used by the party to attract votes. It also tried to redeem itself by moving Jagmohan from the Union Urban Development Ministry to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. (The Urban Development Ministry's demolition of unauthorised structures in Delhi was halted following widespread resentment.) The voting pattern shows that while the upper segments of society stayed put, a major section of the middle class, usually perceived as the backbone of the BJP, turned its back on the party. The majority of the 45 per cent of the voters who exercised their franchise belonged to the lower middle class and were residents of resettlement colonies.

As public resentment grew over the demolition of unauthorised colonies, the removal of hawkers, the closure and haphazard relocation of industrial units, the unending crisis over the use of compressed natural gas as fuel for public transport, the budgetary hike in the prices of essential commodities such as liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene, the cuts in interest rates on small savings and the surcharge on income tax, it became increasingly evident that the electorate was fed up with both the Congress(I) and the BJP. However, given the destruction and communal carnage in Gujarat, it appeared that the trading community made up its minds in favour of the Congress(I). Huge sections of the majority community also voted against the BJP. The minorities turned up in large numbers. At least in eight wards the minority votes were in a position to decide the winner.

"The defeat of the BJP was owing to a combination of the impact of the Budget and the communal politics of the party, especially as witnessed by the events in Gujarat," said Joginder Sharma, Central Committee member, Communist Party of India (Marxist). Sharma, a former secretary of the Delhi unit of the CPI(M), said that the middle class had been watching the trends of the last three Budgets. He said that both the Congress(I) and the BJP were unsure of their victories and were trying to postpone the elections. Both parties were in favour of dividing the corporation wards into smaller segments and a committee was looking into that aspect. The CPI(M) put up seven candidates. In the absence of a viable third force, the party failed to open its account.

While the Congress(I) has interpreted the defeat of the BJP as a positive vote for the party's government in the State, it may not be entirely so. Apparently the electorate decided to defeat the BJP at any cost. In fact, the Congress(I) did not expect such a thumping victory. It expected to win about 80 seats. Underscoring the importance of winning the MCD elections, both parties made their senior leaders and even film stars to campaign for them.

Civic polls in the States do not evoke the same kind of attention that Assembly and parliamentary elections do, governed as they are by issues of local importance. But in the national capital, which is but a microcosm of the country, the significance of civic polls cannot be underestimated, especially when 95 per cent of the city comes under the jurisdiction of the MCD. Hence the civic polls were a barometer of the prevailing political sentiment in the country, a sentiment that is definitely against the BJP.

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