Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

THE 14th general election has produced an upset of the kind not seen since 1977, when Indira Gandhi's Emergency regime was overthrown by the masses of Indian voters in a powerful silent upheaval. The Bharatiya Janata Party, its allies and propagandists made it out that with `India Shining' as never before, on every conceivable front, and the `Vajpayee Factor' flattening everything in sight, the contest had become a one-horse race. The Advanis, Arun Jaitleys and Pramod Mahajans waxed eloquent on the point that the BJP had become the `natural' party of governance in India, a status the Congress had enjoyed for decades.

On the other hand, no pollster or party leader of any significance allowed for a verdict in which the Congress, not the BJP, would emerge as the single largest party in the 14th Lok Sabha. Nobody could foresee the Congress-led alliance ending up 30 seats ahead of the BJP-led combine. Nobody could predict the significant increase in the weight of the Left in national politics, with more than 60 seats in a 543-member Lok Sabha and, given the correlation of forces, qualitatively well placed to influence the economic, political and foreign policies of the new government.

Of the two largest national players, the Congress, written off as a party of governance, has performed above expectation everywhere - with the exception of Left-swept Kerala where, for the first time since Independence, the Congress has failed to win a single seat in a general election. The BJP has done well in its traditional strongholds of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where popular feelings against Congress policies still run high; slipped (along with its hard-core ally, the Shiv Sena) in Maharashtra; and made substantial inroads in Karnataka. Its biggest losses have come in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Delhi, Haryana - and Gujarat. Some of its heavyweight Cabinet Ministers have been humbled, among them Murli Manohar Joshi, the spearhead of the saffronising offensive in higher education, Yashwant Sinha, and Sahib Singh Verma (not to mention the Shiv Sena's Manohar Joshi, the Speaker in the last Lok Sabha).

Contrary to the projections of opinion and exit polls, it is difficult to say who fared worse in this election, the BJP or its allies. Over the past decade and a half, the BJP advanced on the national stage partly through raising its national vote share incrementally - it is now 22.16 per cent, from contesting 364 Lok Sabhs seats - but also through its success in striking alliances in every region with parties big and small. This performance contrasted with the steady decline in the Congress' vote share - it is now 26.69 per cent, from contesting 417 seats - and the party's conspicuous failure to break out of its shell and find effective allies within the secular camp. This time, three of the BJP's senior partners in key States have suffered a spectacular debacle - Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, and Mamata Banerjee's Nationalist Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. A critical ally, the Janata Dal (United), fared poorly in Bihar. The impressive performance of two National Democratic Alliance constituents, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, cannot compensate for the flopping of the alliance factor in the big States of the South and East. The other side of the coin is that the Congress' key alliances have clicked - in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra - to put the formation clearly in the lead over its national rival and be in an unchallenged position to form a coalition government at the Centre.

A heartening feature of Verdict 2004 is the unhesitating verdict given by the people in favour of the Left in its stronghold States of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura in preference to both the Congress and the NDA. The significance of this outcome within an outcome for national politics clearly exceeds the numbers involved. Led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Left has decided sagaciously not to participate in the government. Considering its political interests and mass base in its stronghold States, the Left needs to preserve its independence so as to grow and also make its critical contributions to policy-making. It has fundamental differences with the Congress on economic, political and perhaps even strategic issues. The concentration of the CPI(M) in particular will be on protecting and reviving secular values in the public sphere, pushing for economic relief to the masses of the working people, and correcting the pro-U.S. tilt in strategic and foreign policy introduced by the NDA government. However, the Left's clear-sighted and firm support to a non-communal dispensation at the Centre will be a factor making for stability. This means that if the coalition government headed by Sonia Gandhi functions on the basis of a common minimum programme and respecting the mandate - which is not for the Congress but for a broad Congress-led grouping of non-communal, secular parties that stand for the detoxification of the social atmosphere in the country and also raised basic livelihood issues - it stands a sporting chance of completing a full, five-year term.

The Congress and all its allies must act wholeheartedly in the knowledge that Verdict 2004 is a rejection of the NDA's policies - its highly divisive communal policies pursued most viciously in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and also very determinedly in the educational arena. Verdict 2004 is also a vote against the chauvinist, highly personalised campaign against Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins. But `India Shining' deserves an award for the worst advertising campaign of the past quarter century: by seeming to mock the deprivations of the mass of voters in rural as well as urban areas, it opened up a huge credibility gap for the ruling party. In the final analysis, this election was lost by the BJP and its allies - and also by the Congress where it faced the Left - on mass livelihood issues. The prospects of the Congress-led dispensation will depend, to a substantial extent, on acting speedily and intelligently on this realisation.

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