A promising alliance

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

Despite a rather desultory performance in key infrastructure sectors, a compromise with the BSP might take the Digvijay Singh-led Congress(I) to a winning position in Madhya Pradesh.

A SIGNIFICANT act in the upcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh was played out in the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Freshly installed as president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - as partial if rather poor compensation for the loss of her chief ministerial chair in Uttar Pradesh - Mayawati on October 22 obtained an order from the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, restraining the police from arresting her until investigations into the Taj corridor affair were completed. Her mind unburdened of that source of tension, she proceeded to put in play her plans for vengeance on her erstwhile political partners. The BSP, she said, would soon unfurl its strategy to ensure that the Bharatiya Janata Party is defeated in all the States going to the polls on December 1.

The BSP in Madhya Pradesh seemed to be growing in political moment and weight through much of the 1990s, rapidly increasing its share of the popular vote to a significant 8.5 per cent in the 1998 Assembly elections. The following round of contestation, for the Lok Sabha in 1999, saw a dramatic shrinking of the party as it was squeezed out between the two political majors in the State. Evidently, the Congress(I) won over a large part of the BSP constituency as it expanded its share in the popular vote, while still managing to fall far behind the BJP in seats won.

Till not far back, the Congress(I) was intent on keeping the BSP out of its political calculations in Madhya Pradesh. But two successive terms in office seem to have weakened its resolve. The party obviously believed in the long-term calculation that the BSP vote, after a period of restive wandering, would ultimately come home to roost in its capacious folds. It was a calculation that recent electoral trends lent support to. But with Mayawati intent on revenge and Digvijay Singh looking the most vulnerable of the Congress(I) Chief Ministers facing the polls, all the ingredients seem to be in place for a historic compromise.

Madhya Pradesh has over a decade developed the fine art of springing political surprises and making significantly nuanced distinctions between State and national-level elections. In the Lok Sabha elections held early in 1998, the BJP won a decisive victory, taking 28 of the 40 seats. But any thoughts it may have had of carrying this momentum into the Assembly polls later that year were rudely banished when the Congress(I) managed both to repair its dented morale and to overcome the incumbency disadvantage.

In the next general elections, the Congress(I) perhaps assumed that it stood a fair chance of taking forward the momentum of the most recent contest and capitalising on the incumbency of the BJP at the Centre. That was again proved a false hope, with the BJP actually increasing its tally of seats by one. The Congress(I) too gained a seat, shutting out the BSP in the process.

There was one feature of the BSP performance though that seemed to be of significance if only in a short-term, opportunistic sense. The party contested seats throughout the State and managed a rather modest vote share of 5.2 per cent overall, which marked a sharp decline from the best figures registered earlier in the decade. The core strength of the party was in the Vindhya Pradesh region though, stretching from the Chambal valley in the west to the Shahdol and Sidhi districts in the east. The BSP in this region still managed to hold on to a vote share in excess of 12 per cent. Again, the drop from the highs of 17 to 18 per cent registered earlier in the decade was directly attributable to a migration of the BSP vote to the Congress(I). Given some more time, the migration might have accelerated to the electoral benefit of the Congress(I). But the Congress(I) today is obviously in no mood to gamble on perceived long-term trends.

Risk aversion is also evident in the Congress(I)' decision not to persist with the policy of retiring a certain number of incumbent legislators. The essential bipolarity of the Madhya Pradesh political scenario is likely to be further consolidated with the BSP now going through a schism over which of the majors to align with.

The two main contenders, in fact, have never been separated by more than a narrow margin of the popular vote share. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the difference was just over 2.5 percentage points to the advantage of the BJP. In the 1998 encounters, a five-point advantage that the BJP garnered in the Lok Sabha round was transformed into a two-point Congress(I) advantage in the Assembly round. How the BSP votes are deployed in the December polling could have a crucial bearing on the outcome.

THE Congress(I) has historically had a strong claim to the loyalty of the Dalit and Adivasi voters in Madhya Pradesh. The numerically larger sections of the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have been divided in their voting behaviour, with the BJP enjoying a moderate advantage. The recent break-up of the State, which saw the tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh being hived off and the strength of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly reduced from 320 to 230, could have a bearing on the Congress(I)'s fortunes. Expectedly, the BSP's appeal has remained confined to the Dalit vote and it has not managed in Madhya Pradesh, as in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, to reach out to the Muslim and OBC constituencies.

Digvijay Singh has been seeking to offset partially the potential loss on account of the formation of Chhattisgarh by making a determined bid for the Dalit vote. His well-publicised schemes of affirmative action - such as sourcing a specific proportion of government procurement from Dalit enterprises and providing faster promotion avenues for government employees from these strata - have given him an important propaganda advantage. But the effort to work out an arrangement with the BSP, whether formal or otherwise, has got off to a ragged start. And there seems little prospect of a seamless transfer of the BSP vote to the Congress(I).

Since the State unit of the BSP has historically been opposed to any form of alliance with the political majors, Mayawati had to make certain pre-emptive changes in leadership to put her strategy to effect. Early in October, State party chief Phool Singh Baraiya was abruptly dismissed and replaced by the more pliable Sant Singh. A crusty veteran who was very close to former BSP president Kanshi Ram, Baraiya was in no mood to swallow the indignity. Mayawati soon found her troubles cascading. Sant Singh himself was replaced after a mere fortnight at the job by P.P. Chaudhury. By the end of October, Baraiya and Sant Singh had formally broken off to form their own regional party, the Samata Samaj Party.

Mayawati accuses Baraiya and his confederates of a clandestine plan to work for the BJP in the coming elections. Baraiya accuses Mayawati of a similar design vis-a-vis the Congress(I) which, he alleges, has been as inattentive to Dalit aspirations as the BJP. Although elements of the Congress(I) have spoken out explicitly in favour of a formal tie-up with the BSP, the central leadership seemed to rule the possibility out of court when it announced its intention to contest all 230 seats. The most likely prospect is that both the majors will have informal arrangements with the two estranged factions, perhaps dividing up the BSP vote. The BSP itself looks to be in terminal decline as an electoral force, though it could be an influential player in marginal contests, especially in the Vindhya Pradesh region.

The BJP itself is approaching the elections under a revamped State leadership. The uncertainty over State party chief Uma Bharati's candidature has now ended and the search is on for a safe seat for her. The initial plan was to project her as the party's Chief Minister-in-waiting, but not tie her down to any specific constituency. In endorsing Uma Bharati's leadership, the BJP has spoken decisively against the dominant party factions of the recent past.

The bitterness between the traditional leadership of the party, notably former Chief Minister Sunderlal Patwa and the newly emergent sections represented by Uma Bharati and her OBC constituencies had caused the BJP much electoral damage in recent contests. In fact, the 1998 Assembly elections were lost because a large part of the party's committed vote chose to stay away in evident pique at the state of factional politics within.

The old guard is now weakened by advancing age and by successive electoral defeats in the State. Uma Bharati has a clear field within the party, though she can take nothing for granted. Choice of seat is a decision that she would have to devote close attention to. After having represented Khajuraho for two terms in the Lok Sabha, Uma Bharti in 1999 chose to shift to Bhopal, in evident uncertainty about the prevailing ground realities. She won comfortably, but her political base remains outside the BJP heartland of Malwa. And it remains to be seen whether her rather shrill campaign style will make much impact against the practised sobriety of Digvijay Singh and a Congress(I) that manages to unite fairly solidly behind him at the time of State elections.

Digvijay Singh seeks to eschew all sectional appeals, except to the Dalit and Adivasi segments. His mantra of development got him considerable mileage in the 1998 elections, when the State's experiment at decentralisation through panchayati raj had an element of novelty about it.

But since then a rather desultory performance in key infrastructure sectors such as electricity and irrigation has shorn some of the magic off. Uma Bharati has been taking aim at what she has described as the illusory quality of Digvijay Singh's achievements on the development front, creating spasms of alarm and resentment in Congress(I) circles over her rather artless polemics.

By the end of October, the Congress(I) was running ahead of the clock in allocating seats while the BJP was yet to get off to a start. Uma Bharati was turning up the pitch of her attacks, accusing Digvijay Singh of unsavoury business associations with an Indore-based businessman. Her campaign appearances in the Malwa region have, by all appearances, been significantly well attended, with the BJP seemingly mobilising forces well in its main bastion.

But the Congress(I) perhaps has the edge in the Vindhya Pradesh region, which has 88 seats, as many as Malwa. The Mahakaushal region, which includes Jabalpur, accounts for the other 56 seats. In terms of seats, it went decisively against the Congress(I) in the last Lok Sabha elections. But the margin between the parties is very thin here and it could well be the decisive battleground in the December 1 contest.

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