Indian elections have a dynamic all their own, but to conclude that they are a harbinger of things to come is to miss the wood for the trees.
The results of the recent elections held for five state assemblies cannot, therefore, be treated as a semifinal contest ahead of parliamentary elections due in 2014.
In fact, every time a voter goes to the polling booth, he does not act on the results of past elections but on the needs of the present.
Yet, the outcome of the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa will have a profound influence on politics in the country in the next few years. The voters’ yearning for a corruption-free government was felt in all the states, though it was conditioned by the options available.
For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, voters realized that the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav alone had the credibility to provide an alternative government to the corruption-ridden BSP government led by Mayawati.
They did not fall for the theatrics of the dynasty, as represented by the Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi, and the sinister campaign of the BJP that a few crumbs in the form of reservation for minorities would be disastrous for the nation.
In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal government had a clean image. None of its ministers faced any corruption charges, unlike some BJP ministers, against whom the Central Bureau of Investigation had launched prosecutions.
Little surprise, then, that the Akali Dal candidates did better at the hustings than the BJP nominees, though they fought as allies.
The voters were indeed choosy. In Uttarakhand, the BJP’s gamble in bringing in BC Khanduri as chief minister six months before the election did not pay off, as he was badly defeated.
Incidentally, Khanduri’s Lok Ayukta Bill was touted by the Anna Hazare-led Team, campaigning for a strong Lok Pal, or Ombudsman-like institution, as a model piece of legislation.
What this shows is that while corruption is an issue, the people do not attach much importance to the self-styled crusaders against corruption.
The only state where the BJP did well was in Goa. Here, again, it was the identification of the Congress party with corruption that brought it down. Many of its leaders were, in public perception, hand in glove with the mining mafia. In contrast, Manohar Parikker of the BJP was a clean politician.
The success of the BJP can also be attributed to its new inclusive politics. By fielding six Catholics in the Catholic-dominated constituencies, the party extended its hand to minorities, who reciprocated in equal measure. As a result, all the six candidates were elected.
In Manipur, Chief Minister Iobi Singh of the Congress party has over the years established his credentials as a defender of the state’s interests, particularly when the demand for a Nagalim or Greater Nagaland is a bugbear for the Manipuris. By the standards of the region, he is less corrupt. The opposition could not throw up a rival that enjoys both charisma and credibility.
The marginalization of the national parties – the Congress and the BJP – particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is on account of their failure to project chief ministerial candidates. Uma Bharti, who was thrown out of chief ministership in Madhya Pradesh, could not instill confidence among the ordinary BJP workers in Uttar Pradesh, particularly when there were many claimants for the post.
The Congress can take solace in the fact that its vote share improved in most of the states, but that will not solve its problems. Its government at the centre is dependent on the support of allies such as the Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party, which extends support from the outside.
There is no love lost between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, as the former has been opposing central government decisions regarding, for instance, the opening of multi-brand retail business to multinational retailers and setting up of a counter-terrorism centre in the intelligence bureau.
The Trinamool Congress thinks that a Lok Sabha election now would help the party to improve its position in the Lok Sabha.
If the Samajwadi Party also thinks on those lines, prompted by the runaway success in Uttar Pradesh, the United Progressive Alliance government’s future will be at stake. The Congress will have great difficulty in getting its nominee elected to the post of president when the incumbent, Pratibha Singh Patel, completes her term next year.
With no clear majority in the Lok Sabha and the Congress’ position precarious in the Rajya Sabha, it would be increasingly difficult for the ruling party to enact laws of its choice.
In other words, the days of single-party dominance is over. The Congress will have to evolve a consensus on all issues if it has to rule.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be decided on how the government faces the challenges and provides a corruption-free government. There is no shortcut to success, as the election results clearly indicate.
India: I was too — initially.