Sunday, November 01, 2009

Winning by default

The Congress emerges strongest after assembly polls in three states

The Congress emerged the winner in the three elections held in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh in late October. In spite of doing everything wrong by delivering poor governance in Maharashtra, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance has retained power - yet again –and in the process has marginalised the right wing Shiv Sena- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. The Congress Party has also done much better than its coalition partner, NCP. The Congress emerged the single largest in Haryana and won Arunachal Pradesh convincingly. Following the victories, all the chief ministers of the states were retained in power by the “High Command”, though the squabbling between the alliance over ministries and sharing of power in Maharashtra had not ended, at the time of writing, and even a week after the elections a new government had not been sworn in.

The Maharasthra Navnirman Sena (MNS) - an outfit that broke away from its parent Shiv Sena - hurt the BJP-Shiv Sena combine by garnering 5.6% of the votes and indirectly helping the Congress-NCP combine to win outright (144 of the 288 seats) because of the fragmented opposition in many seats. Yet, too much must not be made of the MNS factor, for the opposition suffered because of its poor performance in the Vidarbha region where the Raj Thackeray party was not present.The Congress-NCP combine itself registered a marginal decrease in overall vote-share, but managed to win despite what was uniformly perceived as lacklustre performance in the previous two terms. That the main opposition never managed to raise the relevant issues of the day - widespread agrarian distress, high levels of inequality, inadequate power and water, and livelihood stress -- helped the ruling combine. The lack of interest among the voting population was also visible, with just about half the electorate turning up to vote in an election dominated by money power, dynastic politics and rebellion by disgruntled "ticket" seekers. Voters continued to display a sense of fatigue with the hard right politics of the Shiv Sena, the BJP and even with the virulent MNS, which ended up with 11 seats. The newly formed Republican Left Democratic Front fared badly as well, with the Republican Party of India (Athavale) coming a cropper losing all its contested seats. The winning vote for the Congress-NCP combine most certainly can not be attributed to any positive wave for the ruling alliance. But the Congress in particular would be satisfied with the retention of one of India's largest and economically most important states. It can also be suggested that the ruling combine's strategy of regularly changing the chief minister at the helm helped it stem an anti-incumbency current.

In Haryana, the results were not fully on expected lines. The Congress far from sweeping the polls, as forecast, emerged the largest party but fell short of a majority. It could form a government only with the support of independents. The previous Bhupinder Singh Hooda government had called for elections much earlier than its stipulated completion of term, expecting to continue to ride the wave that helped the party garner a large chunk of Lok Sabha seats in the national elections in May 2009 in the state. The fate of the Congress would have been worse if the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), led by former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, had not broken its alliance with the BJP before the elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party, still trying to make a dent elsewhere in India beyond Uttar Pradesh failed yet again, winning only a single seat and its vote share fell to half of what it garnered in the Lok Sabha elections. Again in Haryana, the Congress' performance was nothing much to talk about, only seen as more favourable compared to the INLD rule in the past. The Congress' reliance on social engineering rather than performance to extend its rule did not generate the expected dividends. Its strategy of weaning away Jat voters from the INLD did not deliver as the latter was able toretain the community’s support and the latter in fact added a few seats to its previous tally and won an impressive 31 seats. The scrape through should serve as a wake up call for the complacent ruling party.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress managed to retain its absolute majority, against the splintered opposition featuring some former legislators of the party representing the NCP and the Trinamul Congress. The Congress had earlier held a super-majority after legislators in the opposition deserted their parties to join the ruling party. Hampered by a lack of choice - the opposition was a cluster of former ruling party legislators and offered no specific alternative agenda to that of the Congress - the voters preferred the ruling party, which been at the helm in the state ever since its formation except for a single term.

The winning run for the Congress is a boost for the party and demonstrates a further weakening of the rudderless and feuding BJP, whose patron, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has even suggested “chemotherapy” to save the party! The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, later denied making such a remark and in any case he may be unaware that such treatment is no guarantee for medical recovery.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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