Debating India

POLITICS

A vote of discontent

Siddarth NARRAIN

Sunday 28 December 2003, by NARRAIN*Siddharth

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 26, December 20, 2003 - January 02, 2004.

The BJP’s strong showing in Madhya Pradesh is in large part a result of the poor record of the Digvijay Singh government.

THOSE hoping that the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh will stick to its largely development-based mandate and continue with the strategy of playing down the Hindutva card would have had quite a few uncomfortable moments watching the State’s first woman Chief Minister, Uma Bharati, being sworn in at the Lal Parade grounds in Bhopal. Dressed in her trademark saffron outfit, Uma Bharati walked straight to her guru, Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami of Pejawar Math, Udupi, after being sworn in, amidst the chanting of mantras. Seated in the first row of seats on the podium were around 50 sadhus and sanyasins, chanting hymns and shouting `Jai Shri Ram’.

In the December Assembly elections BJP’s organisational framework, with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) as the backbone, helped the party cash in on the popular dissatisfaction with the performance of the Congress(I) government. The Congress(I) was faced with a populace that was angry at the high electricity tariffs, frequent power cuts and the deteriorating condition of roads. The BJP’s election strategy was two-fold. While Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley coordinated a war of facts and figures in the media on the Digvijay Singh government’s performance, Uma Bharati criss-crossed the State working on popular sentiments and drawing large crowds.

The RSS played an important role in the campaign. State organising secretary of the BJP Kaptan Singh Solanki, an RSS veteran, helped coordinate Uma Bharati’s rath yatra. Although the BJP by and large refrained from playing the Hindutva card, the RSS used Hindutva as an issue in western Madhya Pradesh, especially in Jhabua and Dhar districts, to mobilise votes. Says Bahadur Singh Dhakad, the State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist): "The RSS has done extensive work in the regions surrounding Dhar and Jhabua. They have initiated the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and the Hindu Sangamas, thus creating a large network in the Adivasi areas."

Contrary to the general perception that the BJP has shed its family ties, the RSS continues to play a major role in governmental decision-making. The RSS, along with BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie, are preparing a development plan for the State. RSS leaders have already asked Uma Bharati to go slow on her election promises as the newly formed government would not be able to address all the problems that were raised. The RSS plans to keep an eye on the performance of Ministers and other government functionaries.

Uma Bharati has embarked upon a major reshuffling exercise within the administration, beginning with the appointment of a new Chief Secretary, Arun Bhatnagar. Many of the senior officials who have been around for 10 years or more are being replaced. Kaptan Singh Solanki is one of the key persons in charge of the selection of officials.

THE BJP’s margin of victory took many people by surprise. A post-election survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the Congress(I)’s vote share fell in all but four districts of the State. The difference between the percentages of Congress(I) and BJP votes was more than 10, an astounding figure considering that in the previous elections the figure was close to just 2 per cent (in favour of the Congress-I). The main reason for such a one-sided verdict was clearly the popular dissatisfaction with the Digvijay Singh government’s performance. The two most important issues were the power scarcity and the bad state of the roads.

Other factors too helped the BJP win three-fourths of the seats in the Assembly. The shift in Adivasi support from the Congress(I) to parties such as the Gondwana Ganatantra Parishad (GGP) in the Mahakoshal and Malwa regions helped the BJP in the traditional Congress(I) strongholds. The Congress(I)’s vote share among Adivasis fell from 60 per cent to 40 per cent. The GGP’s support base was mainly the Gonds who benefited from the assertion of tribal identity in this region. Sunil of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, which fielded a tribal candidate in Itarsi said: "RSS programmes in western Madhya Pradesh and atrocities by forest officials in the tribal belt of the Malwa region and western Madhya Pradesh helped the BJP. He added that the forest committees that Digvijay Singh had set up to help the tribal people were largely corrupt, and that was another factor that prompted the Adivasis to vote against the Congress(I)".

Although Digvijay Singh believed that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would be a crucial player in the elections, the tacit understanding that the Congress(I) had with the BSP helped it only in the Chambal region. In the other parts of the State, the Dalit vote was not transferred to the Congress(I); the split in the BSP and the absence of a formal seat-sharing arrangement may have added to the Congress(I)’s bag of woes.

The CSDS study shows that the BJP retained and improved upon its traditional share of upper-caste votes. Uma Bharati’s other backward classes status helped consolidate the OBC vote in favour of the party. The Dalit vote, which traditionally went to the Congress(I), was split between the BJP and the BSP. The emergence of the Samajwadi Party, which won seven seats and was placed second in seven constituencies, was at the expense of the Congress(I).

The Congress(I), which was seen as having a rural base, lost out in the villages too. The BJP got 42 per cent of the rural vote, while the Congress(I) managed to secure only 30 per cent. The governments non-performance had a severe impact in the rural belt, which suffered long hours of power cuts and problems with irrigation pumps.

Rising unemployment and the closure of factories were major factors that prompted the working class to vote against the Congress(I). In Govindpura, which has a BHEL township, Babulal Gaur, who is now a Cabinet Minister, romped home with a record margin of 64,000 votes. "Central and State government employees generally voted against the Congress(I) as they opposed the Digvijay Singh government’s decision to freeze dearness allowance and halt new recruitments in many sectors," said Dhakad.

MEANWHILE, the Congress(I) has begun a process of introspection. Some of the factors that party leaders have pointed out as reasons for the debacle are the absence of a second-rung leadership in the State, infighting in the party, and the lack of a coordinated strategy to combat the BJP. Madhya Pradesh Congress(I) president Radhakishan Malviya was viewed as having failed to exercise his authority. A common criticism is that Digvijay Singh interfered too much in the work of his Ministers and did not give them a free hand. As a result, the credit for any government work went to the Chief Minister, and in the elections he had to fight it out mostly on his own. This was in stark contrast to the galaxy of leaders and the coordinated strategy that marked the BJP campaign.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s campaign in the elections struck a chord among the voters and proved a crucial factor. The BJP used the `foreign origin’ of Sonia Gandhi effectively. Sonia Gandhi did attract large crowds in the initial phase of the campaign. However, the attendance became thinner and thinner towards the end - not an encouraging sign for the Congress(I), particularly when the Lok Sabha elections are scheduled for next year.

P.S.

Pic1: Uma Bharati being blessed by religious leaders after she was sworn in Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.

Pic2: In the Chief Minister’s chamber.

Pic3: BJP workers celebrating the party’s victory in Madhya Pradesh.

Pic4: Digvijay Singh, after his party’s defeat in the elections.

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