Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Congress routed…..BJP equally so

It was on August 10th last year that I wrote a post titled “CNN-IBN’s poll shows Congress suffering; but BJP not gaining”. The background to this post was a CNN-IBN poll conducted on the eve of the Independence Day…..in a surcharged environment created by Anna’s anti-corruption movement. At that time, it appeared that the BJP was a party on the rise; capable of thrashing the Congress if elections took place then. After I wrote this post, Anna’s second major hunger strike took place – which the Congress royally bungled. After this, everyone expected the BJP to emerge even stronger – having sided with Anna throughout this tumultuous phase. However, my post had taken a contrarion line – and analyzed why the BJP could not gain even if the Congress lost.

What I had written specifically was “While the Congress is losing the corruption perception battle, the BJP is not gaining from it.”…..and “My big worry is that if the Congress suffers and the BJP doesn’t gain, then the Lok Sabha is going to be an even more divided house the next time around. The Left is hardly likely to gain unless Mamata messes up in WB. It’s the smaller regional parties who could gain – that means an even more weak central coalition government than we have seen during the NDA and UPA times.” If anything, the results announced yesterday are an endorsement of this.

Both the national parties were in deep pain yesterday. For the Congress, not being able to budge significantly beyond its 2007 tally hurt hugely – especially since the battle was led by none other than Rahul Gandhi himself. What must have felt like salt in a wound was the unexpected loss of Punjab. But what must have hurt the BJP equally badly was the story that has been repeating itself nationally. The BJP itself does poorly, even as its allies do better. The BJP’s performance in UP was atrocious to say the least – losing 4 seats over its poor-enough performance in 2007. And though it claims to have won Punjab, it’s actually not true. The BJP lost massively in Punjab, losing 37% of its seats. What the Congress had to salvage its pride was Manipur; the BJP Goa. Both parties proved unable to convince the voters of Uttarakhand to support them. It remains to be seen who forms the government there (Will Mayawati support Cong or BJP?).

What must have hurt both parties was the way the counting progressed yesterday. For the first couple of hours (till about 10 am or so), the picture that was emerging was very different from what happened at the end. In UP, there appeared to be a “BJP wave”. The party appeared to be doubling its seat count compared to 2007. The BJP appeared to be emerging as the 2nd largest party after the SP. In fact, TV anchors started propounding theories of why the BJP was doing so well. One theory that particularly gained currency was that it was Salman Khursheed’s 9% reservation fiasco that had gifted the BJP a huge poll victory in UP! In fact, some BJP leaders were so impatient to expand on the party’s superelative performance that they couldn’t hold themselves back. They must have felt totally embarrassed when the tide changed! Far from doubling its count, the BJP actually lost seats. The same was the scene for the Congress in Punjab. The first ten odd leads indicated a “sweep” for the Congress. Again, there were big statements made about Punjab continuing with the tradition of tossing out the incumbent government every five years. Just as the Congress was getting smug about its victory in Punjab, the tide turned! If many political leaders looked like fools in the end, so did many TV anchors!

So what are the big messages emerging from the state elections?

1)      That the regional parties are here to rule: It’s a regional party that continues to rule UP and it’s another one that continues to rule in Punjab. Not only do they continue to rule, they have both managed to increase their seat counts. The Akali Dal has gained 7 seats in Punjab; and the SP stands at 224 compared to the BSP’s 206. Last year, the only other national party – the Left, was routed by the TMC in WB. Clearly, regional parties are doing a better job of representing their people’s wishes than the national parties are at the state level.
2)      Both the Congress and the BJP have been decimated. But like I mentioned, the Congress’s loss is almost never the BJP’s gain (this time only in Goa) – it is a regional party that gains. But when the BJP loses, it is usually the Congress that gains (this time in Uttarakhand, but just look at states like Gujarat, MP, Chhatisgarh and even Karnataka partly…..). For the BJP, what this means is that it has peaked – they simply cannot grow beyond their current size.
3)      For the BJP, it’s a strange problem. The party continues to become weaker and weaker. But their allies continue to do better and better. In Punjab, the BJP actually lost 7 seats even while their partner the Akali Dal managed to gain those many. In both UP and Uttarakhand, the party lost 4 seats each. It’s only in Goa where the party captured an additional 7 seats. Overall, the BJP’s seat count went down by 8 seats in these elections (the Congress gained 24 seats). Today, the clear picture that is emerging is that the BJP is yielding ground to its allies. Is this the meaning of coalition dharma? Is this the price that a national party has to pay to keep its coalition going? The BJP already doesn’t matter in most of the politically important states – in Bihar, it’s really a JD(U) government; in UP, it is in a poor position. In Maharashtra, it’s already a weak party (in Mumbai, it’s a weak ally) and in WB and AP (the other larger states), it almost doesn’t exist. Even in Punjab, it’s in an unequal alliance. The BJP seriously needs to introspect on its political strategy. In contrast, the Congress is not in an alliance where it is a minority partner except in WB – but we already know that it has no voice in that state. The BJP likewise has no voice in states in which it is the minor alliance partner.
4)      There was absolutely zero influence of Anna’s movement. How many months has it been since the movement bombed? Three months? If Anna’s movement had any impact, the BJP should have been the biggest beneficiary. The party was parroting every demand of Team Anna – almost looking like its B team; but the party that won was the Samajwadi Party which was never a supporter of Anna. The BJP needs to ask itself if its belief that hogging prime time on TV with eloquent spokespeople is enough to wrest political power. It has to think about whether backtracking on the Lok Ayuktas clause in the Lokpal Bill was the right thing to do. It also needs to introspect on its stand on various economic policies – remember the Akali Dal was a big supporter of FDI in multi-brand retail but the BJP opposed it? Basically, the BJP needs to understand where it stands – as an opportunistic, disruptive party, or one that stands for something principled and constructive?
5)      Narendra Modi is a smart politician. He probably read the writing on the wall better than most other BJP leaders! No wonder then that he decided not to campaign in UP. Had he done so, he would have been compromised. Today, he stands out taller in the BJP.
6)      What about Rahul Gandhi? Well, I think the consensus is that the people of UP thought him to be hard working and sincere. Yes, he failed and he has taken responsibility for it. But in my mind, he’s made a lasting impression on UP’s electorate. The Congress may have lost UP, but they are in a position to increase their Lok Sabha strength in the next General Elections. One thing is clear – if the BJP fears anyone the most, it is Rahul Gandhi. No wonder then that more than analyzing her own party’s dismal performance, Sushma Swaraj was at pains to explain (almost urge viewers) that Rahul Gandhi is a failure!
7)      Dynasties work in India and how! Both the men of the match yesterday were Akhilesh and Sukhbir. When TV anchors asked both this question…..their attitude said it all “Who cares?”!!

The real truth is that the state elections come as a warning to both the BJP and the Congress. Both need to reinvent themselves. Rather than fighting each other in a battle of mutual attrition, both parties need to grow their clout. Both parties are losing relevance in an India – there is a growing preference for regional parties – at least at the state government level. Even in the Lok Sabha, the last time the ruling party had a clear majority of its own was perhaps when Narasimha Rao was PM. Both parties need to introspect……and yet, both of them prefer to attack each other….

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