Today's Paper

Outcome of Assembly elections will guide parties on strategies for Lok Sabha polls

Harish Khare

New Delhi: By Monday afternoon, the country should have a reasonably good idea as to how the voters have exercised their preferences in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan.

Billed as the “semi-final,” the outcome will become a critical input in how the political parties approach the next Lok Sabha elections, including a re-assessment of aligning/de-aligning with the Congress and the BJP; and, obviously, the outcome and the interpretation that is put on that outcome will also determine how various political parties and State governments conduct themselves in the next few months vis-À-vis the Manmohan Singh government.

In particular, the strategists in most political parties will want to assess for themselves as to how much and in what manner the “terror” issue influenced, if at all, the voters’ choice. The outcome should give a reasonable idea of the nature and extent of presumed anger and sense of insecurity among the people.

As the principal political party (besides the Congress) in the fray in these four States, the BJP’s strategic focus was on “terror” even before the country was subjected to the Mumbai outrage. This well-thoughtout focus on insecurity and fear got summed up in its familiar charge that the Congress was “soft” on terror; the BJP strategists calculated that this focus would effectively dilute the presumed anti-incumbency sentiments against the party’s governments in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

BJP’s terror card

If the BJP’s calculations about the “terror card” are correct, then the party should win all the four States. Given the enormity of the Mumbai outrage, anything short of a clean sweep would be a kind of setback. After all, Madhya Pradesh went to the polls the morning after the Mumbai terror began on November 26, Delhi voted while the last of the terrorist was being still being flushed out of the Taj Hotel, and by the time Rajasthan voted, the terrorists’ deadly audacity and the extent of the failures of the Congress governments at the Centre and in the State had been brought to every home by the chilling television images.

Within 12 hours of the terrorists landing at the Gateway of India, the BJP saw the opening. It quickly and sure-footedly re-jigged its sales pitch. The day after the Mumbai attack, it took out full-page ads, inviting the voters to throw out the “weak” and “unwilling and incapable” government out by voting the BJP in.

Even before the Mumbai terror, the BJP’s big guns like Narendra Modi tried to make the “security” or lack of it their theme song; in Rajasthan, for example, the Chief Minister allowed herself to appear in paid television advertisements, castigating the Congress for the gumption to ask for votes in Rajasthan while its national leadership was presumably unable to protect the citizens.

Projecting Raje

The Rajasthan battle has another interesting aspect. Here the BJP was experimenting with the “Gujarat model”: excessive focus on an individual (Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje) and her “achievements.” In contrast, the Congress campaign was featuring only its national mascots, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. The outcome may force the Congress leadership to revisit its insistence on not projecting any leader as the prime ministerial candidate.

If the BJP fails to regain its majority in Rajasthan, it will not only raise doubts about the limits of the terror strategy but also reinforce the appeal of caste permutations and combinations, even to the extent of overriding an emotional issue.

Oddly enough, the Delhi outcome will have the most definite national implications. The Congress has had a government for 10 years; and anti-incumbency is supposed to have set in irrevocably. Delhi’s middle classes are supposed to be very unhappy with the Sheila Dikshit government because it insisted on the Bus Rapid Transit system; also, the business community was annoyed with the Dikshit regime for the sealing controversy. All said and done, Delhi is ideal and ripe for the BJP’s appeal; Delhi is where the brightest of the BJP sparks plug themselves effortlessly into the “national” media. To that extent, the Delhi outcome will also show the limits of these media dons’ capacity to steer the electorate’s mood.

The Delhi results will have national implications on another count. The outcome will be analysed by both the friends and foes of L.K. Advani, the National Democratic Alliance’s designated prime ministerial candidate. In the choice of Vijay Kumar Malhotra as its chief ministerial mascot, the BJP pitchforked a face that has been all too familiar to the Delhi voters. Remember, Mr. Malhotra became the chief executive councillor in 1967 (when Delhi used to have a Metropolitan Council); he has been repeatedly elected from a Lok Sabha constituency, without exciting the imagination of the Delhi city. The Malhotra/Advani parallel will invite attention as to what extent an old and tired face can become the mascot for change.

Yet another assessment of the election results would draw attention to the potency of the Mayawati factor. The BSP’s performance in Delhi will be most keenly observed. As Delhi is closest to her kingdom, Ms. Mayawati has been attending with considerable care to the task of making her party relevant. And, if her prime ministerial ambitions are likely to find the most resonance anywhere outside of Uttar Pradesh, it will have to be in the Delhi’s outlying rural/semi-urban constituencies.

And should the BSP be able to play the spoiler for the Congress or the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Ms. Mayawati’s political stocks will certainly go up.

In any case, the BSP’s success or lack of it would have a major bearing on the thinking and moves of all those political parties which want to become a stakeholder in Ms. Mayawati’s prime ministerial project. Her party’s performance would energise/depress the third front calculations.

Ms. Mayawati has been making a pitch for her “model” — a strong, effective government of the kind she has put in place in U.P. and for the “partnership” in power she has offered to other (upper) castes. Both the BJP and the Congress will want to understand the election results in terms of her ability to lure the Muslim voter.

The undue focus on terror and the Mumbai outrage have combined to take the attention away from the Congress’s biggest failure: galloping inflation and a perception of an economy mismanaged.

Whatever the outcome, the Congress leadership cannot possibly feel sanguine about its track record on the economic front.