By Swapan Dasgupta
By next Sunday afternoon the country will begin the process of digesting the results of the Assembly elections in five states. Although the results will include the verdict of Mizoram, the greatest attention will be on the four states of northern and central India where the principal battle is between the Congress and the BJP. Since the Congress holds power in Rajasthan and Delhi, and the BJP rules Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, this is not an unequal battle. Despite the fact that there are differences in how people vote in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections—this is particularly marked in Delhi—the outcome will be a curtain raiser in the battle to decide which party/alliance will rule at the Centre in 2014.
The issue is more than a question of the final tally. The interpretation of the final results is more than a statistical issue: it is a matter of perception and expectation. The stakes are unquestionably the highest for the BJP. As the challenger whose geographical spread does not extend to large parts of southern and eastern India, the BJP has to demonstrate that it is in a position to maximise its yield in its stronghold areas. In other words, the BJP does not merely need to retain Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and regain Rajasthan, it needs to perform very well in a triangular contest in Delhi and, hopefully, even win.
For the BJP the bar has been set much higher for a very good reason: this is going to be first real electoral test of Narendra Modi’s popularity ever since he was chosen as the BJP-NDA prime ministerial candidate on September 13 this year. Maybe this is unfair since the ultimate verdict in the states will depend on local issues and the performance of the respective Chief Ministers and challengers. The Modi factor can, at best, have an incremental factor—acting as a booster or a depressant for the BJP.
However, the terms of the encounter has not been decided by the political pundits but by the BJP. In organising a punishing election schedule for the Gujarat Chief Minister and using him as a force multiplier, the BJP appears to have used the state Assembly elections as much a test of Modi’s appeal as the leadership of Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Vasundhara Raje and Hashvardhan. In a meeting in East Delhi on November 30 at which Modi was present, the BJP’s Delhi Chief Ministerial candidate Harshvardhan made it clear that by electing a BJP government in place of Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year tenure, the voters would also be facilitating Modi’s election as Prime Minister next year.
In 1993, in the aftermath of the demolition of the shrine in Ayodhya, the BJP had fought the Assembly elections in five states on the slogan: “Aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh”. It had deliberately linked the Assembly polls to its wider quest for national power. Indeed, at that time there was a belief that a shaky government of P.V. Narasimha Rao would have crumbled had the results been advantageous to the BJP. Unfortunately for the BJP, it lost Uttar Pradesh to a Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance and Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh to the Congress. The BJP won Delhi handsomely and Rajasthan narrowly.
True, it was a narrow 3-2 advantage to the Congress but since the BJP had hyped up its expectations and projected a 5-0 victory, the results proved a colossal disappointment. Far from adding to the fragility of the Narasimha Rao Government, the Assembly results strengthened the Congress and allowed it to rule for a full-term till 1996. In the 1996 general election the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha and the 13-day government did set the stage for a big win in 1998 and 1999. However, in hindsight, over-pitching the 1993 elections proved very costly for the party and delayed its triumph at the Centre for at least five years.
I am not suggesting that the 1993 experience is likely to be repeated next week: history doesn’t repeat itself mindlessly. Yet the BJP should be aware that linking its national fortunes and the political trajectory of its great hope to the Assembly polls carries a high element of risk.
The Congress just has to perform half-decently for it to slow down the BJP’s momentum. Whether this means ousting the BJP in Chhattisgarh and clinging on to either Rajasthan or Delhi is something that will become evident on counting day. For the moment the Congress is definitely the underdog in the poll stakes and the bar it has set for itself is much, much lower than that set by the BJP for itself. Even a solitary victory will give solace to the Congress and reassure its dispirited troops that even if it can’t win in 2014, it can deprive Modi of a victory.
However, in the event the Congress falters in all the states and is unable to form a government in any of the four main states we are likely to see a dramatic change in the political chemistry of India. First, for all practical purposes India will have a lame-duck by the evening of December 8. Secondly, the stage would have been set for many small, regional parties to seek a pre-poll understanding with the NDA. And finally, we will see many rats deserting a sinking ship and discovering virtues in a man they had earlier decried as a living ogre.
Sunday Pioneer, December 1, 2013
Sunday Pioneer, December 1, 2013