BJP hysteria fails
IF the Assembly elections in four states and Delhi were "semi-finals" which determine the shape of the next Lok Sabha, then the Bharatiya Janata Party is in trouble. The Congress has performed way beyond its expectations. But it must show leadership to make further gains. The Bahujan Samaj Party has marched forward, but hasn't emerged as a kingmaker.
No less important, the voter has rejected the politics of divisiveness, scare-mongering and hysteria fashioned by the BJP around terrorism -- especially in Delhi and Rajasthan, which voted well after the Mumbai attacks.
The BJP's negative terrorism-centred campaign against the Congress failed. The voter rejected its extravagant claim to be uniquely strong-willed and equipped to combat terrorism, and punished it for sordidly politicising Mumbai's tragedy and for defending Hindutva terror.
The BJP staked a great deal in the elections and was hoping to win 4 of the 5 assemblies. But it won only 2, with a reduced vote-tally. Six months ago, the BJP thought it would easily win Delhi, but not Madhya Pradesh. Just the reverse has happened.
The elections' main message is, the BJP has failed to create a powerful momentum that could propel it towards a strong showing in the Lok Sabha elections. Its Hindi-belt base is shrinking. UP and Bihar, the Hindi-heartland biggies, contribute only 10 and 5 MPs to its tally.
Ms. Sheila Dixit has become only the third Congress chief minister anywhere to win a third term. This is remarkable because the dice were loaded against her with high prices, demolitions of "unauthorised" buildings, and the presumed "unpopularity" of the Bus Rapid Transit system, against which the media crusaded on behalf of car-owners loath to share road-space equitably with bus commuters.
Ms. Dixit's victory is explained by her relative responsiveness to the public, and by the voter's rejection of the BJP's attempt to create a barbed-wire "national security state." Had the BSP not eroded the Congress' victory by raising its vote-share from 5.5 to 14 percent, the party would have done even better.
BJP ideologues rubbed their hands with glee at the Mumbai carnage. As one of them wrote: "The Mumbai attack struck at the heart of the elite. This brought terrorism to the doorstep of opinion-makers -- those who determine media content."
But instead of repeating the "enough-is-enough," "attack-Pakistan," "teach-them-a-lesson" slogans endlessly recited on TV channels, the public refused to join the anti-Pakistan frenzy. There was an unprecedented spontaneous show of Hindu-Muslim unity in city after city.
In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP retained power, but suffered a 6 percentage-point decrease in votes, losing over 30 seats. It won mainly because of divisions among its opponents. The BSP caused a loss of 20 seats to the Congress.
There was serious infighting between Congress factions, led by powerful satraps, which ensured that the party didn't take advantage of the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP.
In Rajasthan, the BJP lost because its performance didn't match popular expectations, despite better implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The brutal killing of more than 100 people in repeated police firings and 200 temple-stampede deaths also played a role. As did the overbearing feudal attitude of the chief minister.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress increased its vote, but its seat-tally rose only marginally. A major reason, apart from factional discord, was the BSP. It polled more votes than the margin of the BJP's victory over the Congress in 21 constituencies.
The BJP's performance in the Naxalite-dominated Bastar Division was impressive. It bagged 11 of its 12 seats.
The reason for this is the tremendous polarisation created by the government's deplorable sponsorship of Salwa Judum, a militia trained, armed and paid to kill anyone suspected to be sympathetic to Maoists.
Salwa Judum has practised exceptional brutality, razing scores of villages, and rendering one lakh tribals homeless. State support for this super-criminalised group has rapidly eliminated the middle ground between Red (Naxal) and Saffron (BJP) politics.
Since the Reds don't do electoral politics, the field was monopolised by the BJP. The Chhattisgarh result was a setback for social harmony, rule of law, and participatory democracy.
That said, the Indian electorate has graduated from simple plebiscitary politics, which punishes parties by voting them out, to exercising a discriminating judgment on the contending parties' actual or likely performance.
On balance, the election results set new challenges to parties and alliances. The Congress has reason to cheer, but must put its house in order and take some real policy initiatives.
If the BJP wants to stem further erosion of its support, it should stop being devious and put forward a positive program.
The BSP has further strengthened its role as a spoiler, but it cannot reshape the political agenda. In the next general elections, it's likely to be confined mainly to UP, with 40 to 50 seats. This is short of the numbers necessary to form the backbone of a non-Congress non-BJP Third Front.