Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The BJP Worsted

There may have been no clear overall victor in the recent elections to five state assemblies, but there was certainly one clear loser, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP having worsted the Congress in a series of state elections over the past two years was confident that it had the latter on the mat, and saw the elections as a dress rehearsal for its return to power in New Delhi in the Lok Sabha polls that are to be held in the first half of 2009. Inflation and the year-long terror attacks across the country that culminated in the Mumbai horrors appeared to the BJP as the Congress having handed victory on a platter. In the end, the BJP has had to perforce turn humble. It won in only two states while the Congress came on top in three. (The results for a sixth state, Jammu and Kashmir, will be known on 28 December.) More important, the electorate has wisely not fallen for the BJP’s campaign that whipped up the issue of terrorist violence.

The BJP had been in power in three of these six states and it had comfortable majorities in the previous elections, while the Congress was seeking a third term in Delhi. The Congress was able to retain power in Delhi, triumphed in Mizoram and snatched victory in Rajasthan by coming ahead of an unpopular Vasundhara Raje-led BJP. The saffron party retained power comfortably in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The Congress won in Mizoram by defeating the Mizo National Front (MNF), which had been in office for 10 years. The MNF’s unpopularity stemmed from its poor handling of the food and famine situation (related to the flowering of bamboo) and the Congress was able to win a two-thirds majority by stressing widespread corruption and mal-governance in the state.

Polling in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh was held after the terror attacks between 26 and 28 November in Mumbai. The BJP had made terrorism and security a major plank in the polls and had expected to gain leverage in at least Delhi and Rajasthan (states which had suffered terrorist violence over the past year). Yet, the success of the Congress in both these states revealed the failure of the BJP strategy, with the electorate possibly seeing this as a collective problem rather than one that could be put at the doorstep of the Congress.

The perception of Sheila Dikshit’s government in mostly metropolitan Delhi as focusing on development and good governance helped the Congress trump the BJP. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje’s government was seen to have been a failure, hopping from one controversy to another (the handling of the peasant movement for water in northern Rajasthan, the Gujjar agitation, widespread corruption and communalisation of governance). The Congress benefited from this strong antipathy towards the BJP government, which faced criticism from within the BJP as well for Vasundhara Raje’s disastrous leadership.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP had to force three changes over the past five years in the chief ministership of the government, after a revolt by Hindutva leader Uma Bharati, who then left the party to start her own Hindutva organisation. Intelligently shifting emphasis from Hindutva to development and giving the appearance of (if not actual) better governance, the low profile Shivraj Chauhan has taken the BJP to victory. Chief Minister Chauhan’s projection of an everyday and down to earth image helped the BJP resist anti-incumbency, even as Uma Bharati’s party tasted heavy defeat with its leader herself biting the dust in the assembly elections. The Congress, divided as is its wont and unable to offer a steady alternative, was not able to narrow the huge gap in the electoral vote in the previous elections.

In Chhattisgarh a populist Raman Singh-led BJP won again on the back of such measures as the subsidised rice scheme for the poor. That the Congress offered no better alternative on the other prominent issue – Maoism in the state – and that both the Congress and the BJP have supported the unpopular Salwa Judum exercise ensured that the opposition party could not supplant the BJP.

In many ways, the results of these elections put paid to the “anti-incumbency” theory, which has been the chant of commentators who are unable to explain the voting out of governments that are unpopular everywhere other than in the TV studios and the editorial pages of newspapers. Development and grass roots work have helped ruling parties overcome the opposition, particularly when the other side is divided, does not offer a credible alternative, is plainly communal or is opportunistic. However, voting behaviour and outcomes are far too complex to be explained even in terms of “good governance”.As the result in Madhya Pradesh shows, even an intelligent packaging of a government that seems to care can swing voters away from the opposition, even if there is no true improvement in people’s welfare. A better understanding is needed of how local, regional and national factors affect election outcomes at all levels.

The Congress and the United Progressive Alliance need not now suddenly turn over-optimistic of their chances in their 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Exactly five years ago, in the same states, the Congress was routed everywhere other than in Delhi. That emboldened the National Democratic Alliance to launch its “India Shining” campaign and call elections a few months earlier than scheduled. The assembly election results of 2003 were no harbinger of the Lok Sabha elections of 2004.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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