Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

By Roger Alexander

The election season is finally upon us. With the Election Commission announcing the poll schedule for Chhattisgarh (Nov 10 & 14), Madhya Pradesh (Nov 25), Delhi (Nov 25), Mizoram, and Rajasthan (Dec 4) , the ball has been set rolling for the grand finale – the Lok Sabha elections in March or April next year.

This is a critical round for the two chief claimants to that seat, the Congress and the BJP. Although these are state elections, both parties see them as a “semi-final” for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The results would assume a larger-than-life importance because they will be an indicator of the shape of things to come.

All four states have been with the Congress and the BJP locked in a straight contest ever since the Swatantra Party went into oblivion. However, this time, there is a wild card entry, the BSP, which hopes to upset the applecart of the two national parties by emerging with the support of smaller outfits as the dreaded third force. 

The BJP will be defending its government in MP, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan while the Congress will be trying for a third consecutive term in Delhi. Being so close to the centre of power and with the general elections nearing, the campaign will see a mix of local and national issues, with security, terrorism, and price rise dominating the discourse.

So which way is the political wind blowing? Received wisdom has it that usually incumbent governments face the voters’ wrath that results in the main opposition party making major gains. By this yardstick, the BJP that is leading the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has a lot to worry about. Similarly, the Congress is on shaky ground in Delhi and the Mizo National Front should be chewing its nails in its backyard.

Alas, things do not usually work this way. This writer, for one, takes the so-called anti-incumbency factor with a generous pinch of salt. The mantra is supposed to work this way: the incumbent government makes such a hash of things that voters automatically plump for the opposition. However, the wily Indian voter is known for delivering nasty surprises and the 2004 verdict is still fresh in the public mind. And they keep their cards so close to the chest that even the governments’ intelligence gathering units fail to gauge the public mood. Independent pollsters are even more clueless.

If elections were to be held tomorrow, in Madhya Pradesh (230 seats), Rajasthan (200 seats) and Chhattisgarh (90 seats), the BJP retains an advantage in Madhya Pradesh, and has a fighting chance in Rajasthan given the disarray in the Pradesh Congress. On the other hand, Congressmen claim they have an in Chhattisgarh, but with Ajit Jogi incapacitated and the Shuklas over the hill, it remains to be seen if this is bravado or hard fact. The electoral race in these states is very finely poised and minor swings can change the nature of the outcome.

True, corruption was emerging as a major electoral issue in the BJP-ruled states where corrupt administrations, ministers and legislators have made it into a salient issue but since the BJP-led state governments have generally delivered on other fronts and there aren’t many other big-picture themes for the opposition to try and exploit during the electoral campaign.

For example, in a move to prop up its prospects in the forthcoming assembly polls, the Vasundhara Raje government on Sept 11 played its trump card: it obliged over 7.3 lakh state employees by announcing a pay hike of 30 to 50 per cent, which is even higher than what the Centre announced for its staff. The hike will have retrospective effect from September 1, 2006. Besides state employees, three lakh pensioners in the state will receive the new pay package from the same period. 

It must be remembered that disgruntled state government employees played a large role in the unexpected and decisive defeat of Ashok Gehlot-led Congress in 2003.

The BSP factor is another headache for the Congress. The BSP has virtually no history in this region, except in parts of Madhya Pradesh. But after the party surprised all including Mayawati by winning 17 municipal seats in Delhi last year, Mayawati has developed ambitions of spreading her wings outside UP.

That victory was put down to sheer fluke at that time but since then, Mayawati has spent considerable time cultivating political space for her party in these states, all of which share borders with UP. It's a moot point how many seats the BSP will succeed in winning. But it could influence results in enough constituencies to tip the balance. And with Mayawati pinning her prime ministerial ambitions hinge on her ability to snatch the Congress party's vote bank of Dalits and Muslims, she will certainly go for the Congress’ jugular. Ironically, a resurgent Mayawati, rather than being a threat to the BJP, could in fact indirectly help its prospects.

In 2003 assembly polls, the BSP won two seats each in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and polled 4 per cent of the popular vote in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and 7 per cent in Madhya Pradesh. If the BSP were to, say, secure 10 per cent of the popular vote (comprising mostly the traditional Congress vote, which appears likely), the BJP would return to power in these states delivering devastating defeats to the Congress. In other words, the BJP’s hopes of returning to power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, may well depend on the BSP’s ability to cut into the Congress’ Dalit vote bank.

Moreover, two acts of the UPA government could also emerge as new poll issues in these highly polarised states and could hurt the Congress’ prospects. One is the union government’s controversial submission to the Supreme Court that Ram Sethu cannot be worshipped because Lord Ram himself had destroyed it hence was not an integral part of Hindu religion requiring protection under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution (dealing with right to freedom of religion). Government counsel argued before the bench hearing the case that religious texts showed that though the bridge had been built, it had been broken by Lord Ram himself and that anything broken could not be worshipped.

The other issue that the BJP is already using to whip up religious passions is the J&K government’s decision to withdraw transfer of land to the Amarnath board owing to pressure from Muslim groups. This issue is likely to find many takers in north India.

The outcome of these state elections will set the tone for general elections in 2009. If the Congress fails to win at least two of the three BJP-ruled states, the game could be over for the Congress at the Centre. If the BJP fails to retain two of the three states, the party’s hopes of coming to power in New Delhi may appear to be misplaced. Not surprisingly, neither party looks confident about its prospects. Both are ridden with factionalism and may soon be busy putting out bushfires in the form of rebel candidates and defections to the BSP once the process of ticket distribution begins.


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