Low national stakes

Print edition : October 23, 2009
in New Delhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and NCP president Sharad Pawar at the first Congress-NCP rally at Sakoli in Bhandara district in Maharashtra in April.-SHIRISH SHETE/PTI

THERE is broad consensus among the political class in Delhi that the October 13 round of Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh are not going to have a dramatic impact on national politics. The preparations of the two main parties the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and of the non-Congress, non-BJP forces, comprising the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) , the Left and other regional parties, are all being carried out with this common premise.

Even so, the different groups have their distinctive priorities. The central motif of the Congress partys national leadership is to guard against overconfidence, particularly in Maharashtra and Haryana. The BJPs efforts are essentially to get out of the confusion that has overwhelmed the party after the Lok Sabha election defeat earlier this year. For the non-Congress, non-BJP forces, which have much lesser stakes in the states going to the polls, the attempt is to retain whatever little relevance they have in these regions. In the early stages of election campaign none of the three formulations has succeeded in decisively taking forward its priorities.

According to a senior Congress leader, the partys national leadership including president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi have become all the more aware of the overconfidence problem after the stunning reverses in the mid-September byelections in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat, the party lost five seats to the BJP, which also gained one seat each in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. The overconfidence problem is most apparent, according to several national-level Congress leaders, in Maharashtra, where the party is in alliance with its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) . Sections of the Congress were so confident that they held out even against an alliance with the NCP. This delayed the firming up of the partnership and contributed to the raising of organisational problems at the ground level. The problem, said one senior leader, was also manifest in Haryana, though organisationally the party was on a much better wicket there.

In this context NCP chief Sharad Pawar and the Congress general secretary in charge of Maharashtra had a one-to-one meeting in the last week of September. The meeting was held, reportedly, to address specifically the overconfidence issue.

According to highly placed sources in both parties, the two senior leaders emphasised that the difference between the Congress-NCP alliance and the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance was hardly 15 seats in terms of an Assembly segment-wise analysis of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress lost 4 per cent of its vote share in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls compared with the earlier elections. Yet, it got more seats only because the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray cut into the BJP-Shiv Sena votes. The NCP leaders have highlighted this in the discussions with the Congress, said a senior NCP leader.

The mid-September byelection results did prove a morale booster for the BJP, but that in itself has not helped the party get out of its confusion. The list of main campaigners submitted by the party to the Election Commission points to this. Heading the list is former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who announced his retirement from active politics in December 2005. The former Prime Minister has been confined to his residence for over two years now. The BJP apparently plans to use his recorded speeches in the campaign meetings. This decision has been interpreted by political observers as an indictment of the ineffective campaign of other leaders, including former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, party president Rajnath Singh and Rajya Sabha leader Arun Jaitley. They are also mentioned in the list, albeit behind Vajpayee.

Uddhav Thackeray (centre), Shiv Sena leader, with Nitin Gadkari (left) and Gopinath Munde, BJP leaders, in Mumbai on September 19.-VIVEK BENDRE

However, the BJP leadership argued that too much should not be read into the list. According to BJP spokesperson Mukthar Abbas Naqvi, the list is essentially to ensure that the helicopter expenses of the leaders are recorded with the Election Commission and ought not to be treated as evaluation reports of the campaign styles of various leaders.

While this argument does have its merits, there is little doubt that the BJP has been forced to resurrect Vajpayees non-sectarian mass appeal, changing the system adopted in the Lok Sabha campaign. Vajpayee was not present in that campaign, either physically or through recorded speeches. In a sense, it is also an admission that other BJP leaders lack Vajpayees mass appeal.

The BJP leadership has also not been able to come up with a clear political slogan though it has sought to highlight the misrule of the Congress and its allies in the poll-bound States. According to a senior leader, it is not in a position to take up internal security as a major plank since it failed to evoke a good response in at least three previous elections. The party hopes to focus its campaign on price rise, unemployment and governance problems, including those in the setting up of special economic zones (SEZs). However, in the context of the Lok Sabha election defeat and the organisational problems that erupted soon after, sections of the party are not confident this will happen.

The BSP, on its part, is driven by the realisation that it has tremendous damage-potential in Maharashtra and Haryana. In the Lok Sabha polls, the votes we got were instrumental in the defeat of five Congress-NCP candidates and an equal number of BJP-Shiv Sena candidates. In Haryana, too, we came up with a good performance. When translated into Assembly segments, this performance can throw up winning candidates in both the States. That is what we are aiming at, said Ambeth Rajan, Rajya Sabha member of the BSP, to Frontline. The BSP did not have any seat in Maharashtra in the last Assembly, though the party garnered 4.14 per cent of the votes. In Haryana, it had one seat and 3.44 per cent of the votes.

Other non-Congress, non-BJP forces, such as the Left parties, who have struck an alliance with the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra, and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which has some presence in pockets in Maharashtra and Haryana, are trying to rebuild from the reverses that they suffered in the Lok Sabha polls. These parties hope to play a significant role in Maharashtra in the event of a hung Assembly. But there are many ifs and buts attached to these expectations.

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