There is a saying in Hindi: “Jab upparwala deta hai to chappar faad ke deta hai” (When god gives happiness, he gives in bountiful measure). In a democracy, people are god, and they have bestowed on the Bharatiya Janata Party a bouquet of electoral victories. It could not have got better — the party has won in all the four major states which went to assembly polls. The icing on the cake is that the triumph comes only a few months before the Lok Sabha election and thus provides the BJP the critical momentum needed to displace the Congress-led UPA regime.
The party has every reason to relish the victory. It had lost miserably in Karnataka and could not make much headway in Uttar Pradesh. With this win, the disappointments of the past have been wiped out. The BJP has wrested Delhi and Rajasthan from the Congress (though in Delhi it was somewhat away from a simple majority at the time of writing) and retained its hold on Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Both the achievements are commendable for different reasons. The party had faced a leadership crisis in Delhi, and as it battled to put its act together in the run-up to the election, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party surged ahead in popular perception. Things turned for the better for the BJP after it decided upon Mr Harsh Vardhan as its chief ministerial candidate and the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi carpet-bombed Delhi with his rallies. In Rajasthan, the Ashok Gehlot government was always on a weak wicket, but even there Mr Gehlot was said to have recovered some ground after his Government unleashed a slew of populist measures. For the BJP, led by Vasundhara Raje, to have so comprehensively outwitted the Congress regime, is no small achievement, given that Ms Raje had been in wilderness after her party’s defeat in the last Assembly poll and was battling internal dissent as well.
The performances of Mr Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Mr Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh are noteworthy given that these leaders had to battle both the anti-incumbency factor and a resurgent Congress campaign. Good governance coupled with the high-level credibility which the two leaders enjoy won in the end.Chawalwale baba and mama have had the last laugh.
The real takeaway for the BJP from these victories is the absolute necessity of having strong State-level leaders. They are not just the party’s face but they also help unite and energise the cadre by their leadership. The party benefitted from this in all the four States. In fact, the factor had played out earlier in Goa too where Mr Manohar Parrikar led the campaign, and in Gujarat where Mr Modi was the undisputed leader. The party lost in Karnataka after its tallest leader there, Mr BS Yeddyurappa, quit the BJP. It is not surprising, therefore, that serious efforts are on to get Mr Yeddyurappa back well before the Lok Sabha election. It helps that the former Chief Minister is more than willing to oblige. It’s a given that his return will boost the BJP’s prospects in Karnataka. The earlier it happens the better it will be for the party to reclaim its only southern bastion.
While the BJP has won largely on the strength of good governance and strong leadership, it has also drawn upon the voters’ deep dissatisfaction with the performance of the Congress, both in the States which went to the polls and at the Centre. Thus, the Gehlot Government in Rajasthan and the Sheila Dikshit regime in Delhi were hit by a double whammy. The voters punished them for their own inadequacies as well as for the collapse of governance in the Congress-led rule at the Centre. The pathetic performance of the UPA regime also led voters in Madhya Pradesh, and to a smaller extent in Chhattisgarh, to keep a safe distance from the Congress. The Delhi result shows that the Congress’s claim of development (Metro, highways, flyovers etc) got submerged in its many acts of impropriety and inefficiency (rising prices of essential goods, inflated electricity bills and scarcity of potable water, to name just three instances). Additionally, ‘Central scams’ such as the Commonwealth Games scandal and the coal block allocation controversy, strengthened the Congress’s image of a party that was out on a rampage to loot and scoot.
The challenge before the BJP now is to convert these victories into seats in the coming general election. Given that it now controls a majority of the Assembly constituencies in the four States, this should not be too difficult.
For the Congress, the rout comes at an embarrassing time. The Lok Sabha election is only a few months away, and the party is already on the defensive.
The Congress does not have a fig leaf to hide from its colossal defeat in the State Assembly elections. Not only could it not wrest Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the Bharatiya Janata Party, but it could also not hold on to Rajasthan and Delhi. The high-profile campaign by its tallest leaders — party president Sonia Gandhi, vice president Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among others — proved to be in vain. The results are an indictment of both the local leadership of the Congress in the four States and the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre.
The party has paid a heavy price for mismanagement in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. It had failed to send Mr Ashok Gehlot packing despite growing disenchantment both within the party and among the people with his leadership and governance. The slack manner in which Mr Gehlot had handled the Gopalgarh violence of 2011, which led to the killing of some 10 persons from the Meo community, had made him a marked man. While the Congress high command was far from satisfied with him, senior party leaders from Rajasthan who belonged to the anti-Gehlot camp had stepped up efforts to get him replaced. But for some inexplicable reason, the party’s central leadership allowed him a reprieve. He continued as a tainted Chief Minister and eventually led the party to a debacle.
But, even as it retained him in the saddle, the party leadership allowed Mr Gehlot’s rivals to keep chipping away at his influence. Thus, we had Mr CP Joshi, a know Gehlot-baiter considered close to Mr Rahul Gandhi, being appointed the chief of the State’s election coordination panel. In addition, we had the young Mr Sachin Pilot also contributing his bit to the intricacies in the functioning of the State unit of the Congress. In the end, neither Mr Gehlot nor Mr Joshi nor Mr Pilot could help the party win. Mr Gehlot’s last-ditch effort to steal the affections of the electorate with a slew of populist measures also fell flat on the face.
If too many big leaders sniping at one another became the problem in Rajasthan, it was a case of absence of a leader of credibility that damaged the Congress’s prospects in Madhya Pradesh. Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia is no doubt a popular leader for the party there, but he was brought late into the picture; in any case he was not anointed the Congress’s candidate for chief ministership. The Congress in Madhya Pradesh is deeply divided, with even a has-been like Digvijaya Singh throwing his weight around where he is unwanted.
The Congress’s plight is complete when you consider that it could not win Chhattisgarh even after seeking to generate public sympathy over the decimation of its top leadership in the State in a Maoist attack months ago. So much so, the crafty Ajit Jogi too could not do enough to swing the ultimate result in the Congress’s favour.
The party’s biggest shock came from Delhi which leaders right up from Ms Sonia Gandhi down to Ms Sheila Dikshit had showcased as the best that a Congress regime had on offer. The best was not simply not good enough. Also, nowhere has had a State Congress regime to suffer so disastrously for the follies of the Union Government and the electoral ineffectiveness of the party’s high command than in Delhi.
AAPsurge scripts new Delhi politics
For a 15-month-old party which scrambled to put an organization in place and garner funds to contest what was clearly an expensive election, the Aam Aadmi Party has performed not just commendably but spectacularly well. Its success is all the more outstanding given that it had pitched itself in a State that has traditionally been bipolar in its political preference. Ms Sheila Dikshit, who had only days ago sarcastically wondered whether the AAP was even a political party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had sought to play down the AAP’s growing influence, will now be better educated.
The significance of the AAP’s success goes beyond either the seats it has won or the credibility of its winning candidates. Every vote that the outlier has gained was also a ‘protest vote’ against the Congress in particular and the regime of entitlements and arrogance that the political class has bestowed upon itself for decades, in general.
It is a wonder that, often, seasoned politicians fail to grasp — or refuse to grasp — the reality that a lay voter so effortlessly does. As I travelled on Sunday to office in an auto-rickshaw, deliberately giving the Metro a miss, the driver told me in chaste Hindi: “Aam Aadmi Party ne Delhi mein rajneeti ki paribhasha badal di hai” (AAP has redefined politics in Delhi). Mr Arvind Kejriwal’s party had begun that task soon after it came into the political arena and exploited issues which the people felt the established political parties had not given enough attention to. It made full use of the people’s simmering anger. The Congress was the biggest loser of this campaign because it was in power in the State as well as at the Centre. But the BJP too has been affected.
For Mr Kejriwal, it is a doubly sweet moment. While his party has come as a strong runner-up, he has trounced Ms Dikshit in her bastion. His victory is a reflection of the reach that the AAP has gained across the voter base in the largely urban State. The conventional wisdom was that the debutant party would do well among the lower class and the lower middle class segments which have traditionally supported the Congress. The AAP did that, but it also stamped its imprint on the middle class and the upper middle class voters, as the results show. The party is here to stay.
This article first appeared in The Pioneer, one of India’s leading English daily newspaper.