Which way will political India go?

THE IMPORTANCE OF the Assembly elections in five States — Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh — scheduled for November-December 2003 stretches beyond the immediate. This is the final round of Assembly polls before the 14th general election is due by the end of 2004. The outcome is widely expected to influence the decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government on the precise timing of the Lok Sabha contest. A convincing win in several of these States could prompt the ruling coalition to bring forward the general election to early next year. An adverse outcome could see the National Democratic Alliance Government opting to meander to the end of its term. The elections in the four Hindi-speaking States will conclude a series of direct contests between the two leading parties in the political system that began with the BJP retaining Gujarat in December 2002 and saw the Congress wresting Himachal Pradesh in February 2003. Since there is no question of any party winning a majority of seats in the next Lok Sabha election, the real contest is for single largest party status. Whoever scores in the coming Assembly contests will emerge as the automatic favourite for 2004. Since alliances play a crucial role in both electoral success and government formation, the front-runner status could prove decisive.

In four of the five States, the Congress faces a factor that is sometimes dreaded and sometimes made light of by politicos: `anti-incumbency'. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, was able to overcome this factor impressively in the 1998 Assembly election even if the BJP has scored heavily in the State over its adversary in three successive Lok Sabha contests — 1996, 1998 and 1999. Retaining power in Bhopal is expected to be tougher this time. In Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, after appearing to be in control, has gone on the back foot and, rather mystifyingly, faces a Central Bureau of Investigation chargesheet relating to forgery. In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, who has been painted by his adversaries as a weak Chief Minister, seems to be responding resourcefully to the challenge from Hindutva forces led by the VHP, apart from hijacking the BJP agenda of providing reservation for the Economically Backward Classes. Whether such efforts are enough to overcome the anti-incumbency factor remains to be seen. In Delhi, Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has concentrated on good, clean governance and not allowed the BJP to run away with the Statehood issue as an electoral plank. In Mizoram, where the Congress is not directly threatened by the BJP, the stakes and pressures are considerably less.

It is well known that there can be considerable variance between the outcome of Assembly and parliamentary elections in the same State even when these contests are held in reasonable proximity. Local bread-and-butter and governance issues, the image and resourcefulness of the Chief Minister and local leaders, and the opportunity given to the national party leadership to do concentrated campaigns explain some of the difference. Local factors can also play out quite differently in the two categories of elections. Significantly, the BJP has lent two of its Union Ministers, Uma Bharti and Vasundhara Raje, to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, to counter the wiles of Mr. Singh and Mr. Gehlot, who have established themselves as regional chieftains of the Congress. The current round of Assembly polls will also witness a novelty: the filing by candidates of affidavits with information on criminal antecedents (if any), movable and immovable properties, liabilities, and educational qualifications. The Election Commission of India made this mandatory on March 27, 2003. The interesting questions are: How effectively will such information be communicated to the electorate? And will the information make a real difference to the outcome?