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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

A Long Winter of Political Discontent?

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Sandeep Shastri

The results of the ‘semi-final‘ elections appears to bring no real cheer to any of the major political parties. The Congress can heave a sigh of relief that it retained Delhi and has come agonisingly close to the half-way mark in Rajasthan. Mizoram has been a political windfall for the party. For the BJP, its hope for a clean sweep did not materialise as Delhi did not fall in its lap (as it had expected) and Rajasthan clearly slipped away. Given our highly centralised party systems, it is good news for the local satraps—be it a Sheila Dikshit or a Shivraj Singh Chauhan or a Raman Singh. The High Command in both the Congress and the BJP is left ‘high‘ with nothing really to ‘command‘ in the election results. The other major national and regional parties too have hardly made a dent on the results. It is going to be a long winter of discontent for the political parties.

How does one analyse these election results? Mizoram clearly saw the rout of the ruling Mizo National Front. In the other four States, the incumbents have done reasonably well barring Rajasthan. These results are a reversal of a previous trend of anti-incumbency which was experienced in many States. Three points clearly emerge from these results.

THE return of the ruling party in three States is an indication of the premium that the voters place on performance. The manner in which Delhi has got transformed during Sheila Dikshit’s leadership is all too apparent. Most Delhiites would endorse the view that the Congress victory in Delhi was primarily a vote in favour of the development work achieved over the last decade. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh the low-key approach of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has paid rich dividends. This is especially in view of the fact that he has been in power only for the last three years. He was preceded by two other Chief Ministers from his own party, one of whom (Uma Bharati) had launched her own party and fielded candidates against the BJP in most constituencies. In Chhattisgarh too the approach of the ‘Chawal Baba‘ Raman Singh, who led without any flamboyance and sought votes on the basis of his performance, ultimately won the day. In Rajasthan, on the other hand, though the BJP had a Chief Minister who remained in power uninterrupted for five full years, the ruling party could not retain power largely due to the many agitations seen during her tenure and the increasingly divisive nature and approach to governance. In Mizoram too, ten years of MNF (mis)rule was testified by the verdict.

Secondly, the election results are also indicative of the way political parties manage elections. When a party has projected a picture of unity and has a State level leader who leads from the front, the party is clearly at an advantage. In Delhi, in spite of dissident activity during her term as the Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit was able to assert her authority in ticket distribution and had virtually full control over the way the campaign went. On the other hand, the BJP seemed to be a hopelessly divided house—a fact acknowledged today by several of its Delhi leaders. The party was initially undecided on whom to project. When they chose Vijay Kumar Malhotra as their Chief Ministerial candidate, it was a return to the past and not a projection for the future. The fissures within the Delhi unit of the BJP were all too apparent. If we turn to Rajasthan, the BJP faced a host of internal contradictions. The Chief Minister, Vasundara Raje, did not have the unqualified support of all party leaders. She was also not able to get her way with ticket distribution. The party had to face rebels in several constituencies. During the campaign the party was simply pulling in different directions. The Congress was the obvious beneficiary. On the other hand, in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP fully backed its Chief Ministers and the party rank and file appeared to work as a cohesive unit. There were no major discordant voices from within the BJP in these two States. Nor did important leaders of the party in this region stay away from the campaign. The Congress, on the other hand, was not a united force in Madhya Pradesh. Each of the leaders concentrated in his/her own region thus sending mixed and confused signals across the State.

Thirdly, these elections have also demonstrated that ‘good politics‘ can be related to ‘development‘. Development clearly needs to be a part of the comprehensive ‘election package‘ that a party unwraps. This development is not necessarily only about ‘future promises‘ but must include ‘past achievements‘ as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have proved.

The events of 11/26 and the results of what were billed as the ‘semi-final‘ elections have clearly pushed the Lok Sabha elections as close as possible to the end of the five-year term of the existing House. All players realise that the semi-final verdict is of crucial significance but the final will be a totally different ball game!

Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst, is the Director, International Academy for Creative Teaching, Bangalore, and can be reached at sshastri@eth.net

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