WHILE CONFOUNDING MOST poll pundits, the Bharatiya Janata Party has surprised itself by wresting three out of the four Hindi-belt States decisively from its chief adversary. Contrary to popular expectation, the BJP scored an emphatic win in Rajasthan, an unexpected performance for a party that bagged 33 out of 200 seats in the 1998 Assembly election. This is also the first time the party has won a simple majority in the State. In Chhattisgarh, which went to the polls for the first time, the BJP managed to overcome the embarrassment of the Judev tapes and Ajit Jogi's acclaimed election management skills to register a clear-cut victory. While the party's success in Madhya Pradesh was never in doubt, the huge margin of victory has shell-shocked a Congress that had initially hoped Digvijay Singh would be able to moderate the anti-incumbency trend. The exception to the strong trend was Delhi, where Sheila Dikshit, having done commendable work as Chief Minister by focussing on basic issues of governance, was always sitting pretty. Overall, the election results, which must be read as a powerful verdict against Congress policies under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, have dealt a brutal — possibly a fatal — blow to the ambitions of the Congress to form the next Government at the Centre.

The specific outcomes in this major round of contests foreshadowing the 2004 general elections were clearly shaped by multiple factors ranging from general issues relating to governance to specific political variables, such as caste mobilisation and special campaigning in tribal areas, which have made a significant difference at the local and regional levels. Most of all, the results reflect a mood that is increasingly shaping the outcome of India's elections — the sentiment of anti-incumbency. As the election campaign moved into high gear, it became clear that anti-incumbency and the desire for a change had joined forces to generate an irresistible wave in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP, after initially flirting with a Hindutva campaign plank in this State, dropped it in favour of highlighting — very successfully — the failures of governance in terms of providing basic facilities such as electricity, roads, and water. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot's track record of prompt decision-making and prudent drought management was apparently not enough to dispel the sentiment for change, which was aided and abetted by a new kind of activism by caste-based organisations. While Mr. Jogi seemed initially to have the caste arithmetic and the social equations working in his favour, the masses of voters demonstrated they were tired of his manipulative ways. In all three States, the Congress has reason for special worry as its adversary has made serious inroads into tribal areas traditionally dominated by the Congress. What is notable is that the BJP studiously avoided playing the Hindutva card this time.

The BJP's triumphs in what was projected as a mini-general election will provide it with a certain comfort level in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, due in late 2004. These gains will go a long way towards overturning the general impression that the party is losing ground in what used to be regarded as its core constituency — the `Hindi heartland'. At a national level, the prospect of an unequal Atal Bihari Vajpayee vs Sonia Gandhi billing for the coming big contest is likely to spread nervousness and despondency among Congress supporters. An interesting question is how the latest election results will affect the shape of politics in the run-up to the big contest. The Congress' demoralising performance could prompt potential allies to rethink their strategies; in this connection, the attitude of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party will be keenly watched. On the other hand, the results are likely to make BJP allies such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam think long and hard before leaving the National Democratic Alliance. Hopes of going with the swing could tempt the BJP to consider the idea of advancing the Lok Sabha election to early 2004. However, since the revised electoral rolls will be ready only in end-January and since the Election Commission has indicated it will not be rushed into polls, the choice is really between advancing the general election to summer and holding it when it is due. Nothing much hinges, it now seems, on the timing of this contest.

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