Anti-incumbency sentiment against the Centre and the State governments makes the results in five States unpredictable.
LONG before their formal announcement, the elections to the five State Assemblies scheduled to be held in 2012 were perceived as a semi-final of the general elections in 2014. This perception gained ground essentially for two reasons. First, the presence of two major States in the country Uttar Pradesh and Punjab among the five that will face elections. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State, contributes 80 members to the Lok Sabha, and Punjab 13. Second, these elections are crucial for three major players in mainstream politics, namely, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is the ruling coalition at the Centre; the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by it; and prominent regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which are not aligned to either the UPA or the NDA.
Experience of the past decade has shown that the electorate does not necessarily go in for the same choices in the elections to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. Still, the 2012 Assembly elections have been perceived as one that will provide a broad indicator as to how things will unfold at the national level in the long run-up to the general elections. Apart from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, three smaller States Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa will also have elections over a period of three months beginning in January.
The emerging scenario, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, by and large, is as good as the projections that these elections will have national implications. Reports from the grass roots in these States indicate a hitherto unprecedented political phenomenon of having two types of anti-incumbency factors at the same time: one working against the State government and another against the Central government. This has accentuated the element of unpredictability.
The conventional voting pattern in Punjab and Uttarakhand is to reject the incumbent government. The BJP-led NDA is in power in both the States, and a repeat of the traditional pattern would mean a cakewalk for the Congress. But the anti-incumbency factor against the Centre has created a situation where this may not happen in both these States.
This was apparent when leaders of the Punjab Congress, including former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, contemplated at one point of time having dialogue with members of Team Anna which has been for the past six months carrying out an anti-corruption campaign targeting the Union government. Sections of the State Congress believed that Team Anna's stance against the Union government, and thereby the Congress, had the potential to check the anti-incumbency factor against the State government the Congress expected to cash in on. The party has been highlighting crucial issues relating to the administrative failures of the Akali Dal-BJP Ministry in the State. The Congress leadership ultimately refrained from initiating dialogue with Team Anna and appealed to it not to campaign in Punjab, but the very discussions on this underlined the party's apprehensions about the dual anti-incumbency factor.
In Uttar Pradesh, an anti-incumbency factor is at play against the Mayawati-led BSP government and also against the Congress led-UPA government at the Centre. In the process, the principal contest of the BSP is with the S.P. led by Mulayam Singh Yadav.Congress' fears
Significantly, the Congress has much at stake in the Uttar Pradesh elections. The party's hopes of coming up with a creditable show in the Lok Sabha elections depend to a large extent on an improved performance in Uttar Pradesh. Some time back, the party had, in fact, shown promise of being able to capture a significant part of the anti-incumbency vote against the Mayawati government. The 21 seats it won in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections had boosted its morale. The State leadership of the party understood this Lok Sabha result as indicative of the Congress' dominance in as many as 95 Assembly segments. However, the current political situation is such that not many in the State Congress are hopeful of this sort of a performance in the Assembly elections. Once again, the reason cited is the presence of the two-dimensional antiincumbency factor.
The reasons for the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Centre are evident. It is directly related to the developments of the past couple of years when the Congress and the Manmohan Singh government have been shaken by a plethora of scams and allegations. It started with the 2G spectrum scam and went on to the controversial Antrix-Devas deal, the misappropriation of funds and corruption in the conduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the blatant violation of rules in the construction and allotment of Adarsh Housing Society apartments in Mumbai, and the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. The latest developments in Parliament and outside on the Lokpal Bill, including the sordid political drama that unravelled in the Rajya Sabha on the night of December 29, have also worked against the Union government and the Congress.
Above all this, the possibility of a direct campaign by Anna Hazare is also expected to impact the Congress negatively though the party's leadership, both at the Centre and in the States, is of the view that this would impel some sections particularly those that have apprehensions about the Anna movement being beneficial to the forces of Hindutva and its political arm, the BJP of the electorate to support it.
Beyond issues relating to corruption, the inability of the government to control prices and the perceived weak leadership of the Prime Minister, especially in terms of economic management, have contributed to the dual anti-incumbency factor in the election-bound States.
The cumulative impact of all this has been that even the Congress' allies in the government, such as the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress and the Tamil Nadu-based Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have started not only opposing the Congress in Cabinet meetings but going against the government policy openly, including in Parliament. In Parliament, both the parties questioned the Congress stand on the Lokpal Bill.
Congress leaders, including Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, have maintained that the troubles with the allies will be sorted out before campaigning gathers momentum in the five States. However, the attitude of the Trinamool Congress, led by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, does not seem conducive to that. It has decided to fight the elections on its own in Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa. Incidentally, in all three States the party has roped in leaders from the Congress.
Sections in the Congress are also of the view that the party leadership has not been able take the kind of initiatives required to capitalise on the anti-incumbency feeling against its political opponents. According to them, this is most glaring in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where the governments are reeling under a spate of corruption and mismanagement charges. In this context, the role played by Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the party and the heir-apparent to the Congress throne, has been most disappointing for the party. He had shown promise from time to time through some political initiatives in Uttar Pradesh but failed to follow them through to their logical conclusion.Election schedule
The perceived political and organisational failures of the Congress in the context of these elections have also resulted in questions being raised about the manner in which the Election Commission has gone about fixing the schedule for the elections. The election schedule has generated complaints that the Congress is trying to cover up its political and organisational failures using extra-constitutional measures. The argument is that five years ago elections to these States were held in three separate periods. Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand held elections in February, while Uttar Pradesh had it in April-May and Goa in June. But this time the elections in all the five States will be completed by the first week of March.
The general perception in Uttar Pradesh was that elections would be held in April as they were in 2007. The State government had even advanced the school examinations to March in order to facilitate elections in April. More importantly, just two days before the Election Commission released the schedule, the UPA government announced a sub-quota of 4.5 per cent for backward minority communities within the 27 per cent reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBC) in education and government employment.
The central question in this context in all the States is which of the two types of anti-incumbency factors will ultimately dominate the elections. If anti-incumbency sentiment prevails in Punjab and Uttarakhand, the Congress will have two more State governments in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. However, in Uttar Pradesh, there is no guarantee that even an assertion of the anti-incumbency factor against the State government will benefit the Congress. Here, the S.P. is better placed organisationally to capitalise on the feeling against the BSP government.
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