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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

State Assembly Poll Results and Beyond

Editorial

Sunday 25 October 2009, by SC

The results of the elections to the three State Assemblies of Maharashtra (288 seats), Haryana (90 seats) and Arunachal Pradesh (60 seats)—that went to polls on October 13—have come in following the counting of votes today.

At one level it is a victory for the Congress in all the three States as it has left its opponents way behind—it has emerged as the undisputed front-runner having swept the polls in Arunachal Pradesh, returned to power by securing a majority with its ally, the NCP, in Maharashtra, and narrowly missed winning a majority on its own in Haryana (even if it is certain to form the next government in the State).

However, if one takes a close look at the results it becomes amply clear that poll forecasts which had predicted a clean sweep for the Congress in these elections have not come true. In fact whereas the contest in Maharashtra was expected to be close, the Congress majority in Haryana was never in doubt since most pollsters had written off Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD. But while the Congress-NCP combine crossed the half-way mark in Maharashtra (with lesser number of seats than what it had in the previous Assembly even as the Congress won 20 seats more than the NCP), it could not reach that mark in Haryana (where it is six short of a majority). Of course, in Arunachal the Congress, as predicted, recorded a landslide win getting 41 out of 60 seats with its ally, the TMC, wresting five, and the NCP seven.

These elections, especially those in Maharashtra and Haryana, once again demonstrate the clout and potentiality of the regional parties—in Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP combine’s success has been attributed to the strong showing by Raj Thackeray’s MNS (which won 13 seats) that badly hurt the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance and did not enable the latter to exploit the anti-incumbency factor to its advantage; in Haryana, the INLD registered a remarkable comeback with as many as 32 seats that few had anticipated and this prevented the Congress from getting an outright majority.

While all these are doubtless noteworthy, the most striking feature of these elections is the dismal performance of the BJP mirroring thereby the continued erosion of its stature and support base. In Maharashtra, it got 47 seats (as per latest information) while its ally, the Shiv Sena, won 45; in Haryana, where it had snapped its electoral ties with the INLD, it had to be content with just four seats; and in Arunachal, it came last getting a paltry two. What is unmistakable therefore is the party’s inability to get over the demoralisation that had set in under the impact of its Lok Sabha poll defeat earlier this year; rather it is still hurtling downward having lost all sense of direction as it struggles to find its feet and identity.

As for the Congress, it has failed to establish its sway everywhere and hence the anticipation that the ruling party would henceforth be able to go on its own without depending on allies has been belied. That in the overall scenario is a positive development and for this the electorate must be given due credit. The voters rejected the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra but did not allow the Congress-NCP combine to secure a big majority—so a strong Opposition in the State would help to closely monitor the functioning of the ruling dispensation and not permit it to grow smug and complacent. (However, there is no gainsaying that the rise of Raj Thackeray’s MNS with its “Marathi manoos” slogan opposed to all non-Maharashtrians residing in the Mumbai metropolis is a matter of concern.) In Haryana, the Bhupendra Hooda Government’s expectation of a walk-over has been dashed to pieces by Chautala’s impressive showing at the hustings—here again this will provide a strong Opposition but the BJP, having dissociated itself from the INLD, will fail to derive the requisite benefit; now the Congress would willy-nilly have to depend on the wily Bhajan Lal, whose party has won seven seats, to cross the half-way mark and he will extract the inevitable pound of flesh.

MEANWHILE with the State Assembly elections over, the Centre, in consultation with the affected States, is all set to embark on a large-scale offensive by the paramilitary forces against the Maoists in the tribal belt of Central India. (In fact the offensive has already begun in Chhattisgarh, according to latest information available from that State.) This will lead to liquidation of countless innocent adivasis who have come under the Maoist spell in that region. But the government seems unconcerned.

At the same time the ruling party at the Centre does not want to appear running roughshod over the sentiments voiced against such an offensive in different sections of the polity including the intelligentsia and civil society. This explains Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s letter to Rabi Ray, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, in response to an appeal by Ray and several others on behalf of the Citizens Initiative for Peace urging upon the government to hold dialogue with the Maoists to defuse the situation and avert the offensive. Chidambaram has conveyed his readiness for such a dialogue provided the Maoists “abjure violence”. The CIS, in reply, has called for unconditional talks as are being held between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM of Nagaland and as were held between the British Government and Sinn Fenn on the issue of separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The Centre’s move manifests a sense of urgency on the part of the Union Government to mollify the civil society incensed over the ill-thought-out plan of paramilitary offensive (the futility of such an offensive in West Bengal’s Lalgarh is for all to see). As Justice P.B. Sawant, while delivering the lead address at a National Convention of the CIP in the Capital on October 20 (wherein several victims of state violence in the so-called operation against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh gave testimony of the brutalities inflicted on them), pointed out, the state has the bounden duty to exhaust all means of finding a peaceful solution of the problem through negotiations before undertaking any such operation. The government was clearly caught on the backfoot as it had not done or even contemplated such an exercise.

As we go to press, two developments in West Bengal have hogged the headlines—the Maoists’ brutal killing of two police officers at Sankrail P.S. in West Midnapore district on October 20 and the release this evening of the OC of the P.S. abducted on that day itself (following the West Bengal Government’s decision to allow bail to 20 Maoist sympathisers including women arrested in the wake of the joint State-Centre paramilitary operations in the area in deference to the Maoists’ demand to that effect). These would definitely impact on the situation in the State and beyond, but the West Bengal CM has cut a pathetic figure in the process—after branding Maoist commander Kishenji as “both a terrorist and a liar”, he was eventually forced to eat his words and strike a deal with the same person! A typical case of the pitfalls of not measuring every word a public figure utters.

In the meantime, the released police officer is reported to have urged the authorities at the Centre and in the State to hold talks with the Maoists so that the situation does not deteriorate further.

Against this backdrop, with a grim scenario staring us in the face on this front, the Centre as well as the concerned States would do well to pay heed to and act on Justice Sawant’s sage advice.

October 22 S.C.

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