Debating India

ELECTIONS 2004

Unfounded optimism

V. VENKATESAN & Siddharth NARRAIN

Friday 23 April 2004, by NARRAIN*Siddharth, VENKATESAN*V.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party boasts of its pre-eminent status in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, it is reluctant to reveal the basis of this optimism.

in New Delhi

EVERY election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s "Vision Document" which was released on March 30 points out, has a specific context. The party claims that the two main issues of Elections 2004 are good governance and accelerated, all-round development. "There is a new type of hunger in India, the tremendous hunger for development. It is especially acute in rural areas and among the urban poor. They want to free themselves from poverty, backwardness and underdevelopment. They want to see an end to regional and social imbalances in development," says the document.

Even as one seeks to find evidence of the party’s claim in its ongoing campaign, there is little articulation of developmental issues in the leaders’ campaign speeches across the country, as reported in the media. In contrast to the issues of development, which dominated the campaign during the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi last December, the party has so far been unsuccessful in projecting the "good" performance of the ruling coalition at the Centre as an issue that could tilt the scales in its favour.

Union Minister for Law and Commerce Arun Jaitley, one of the BJP’s key strategists in these elections, admits this failure, but blames it on the distorted priorities of the media and the Opposition parties who, he alleged, are reluctant to join issue with the BJP on this.

The prospect of an issueless and, as a consequence, waveless election has begun to worry the BJP, which is contesting about 350 Lok Sabha seats, leaving the rest to its allies. Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu, who had been claiming that the party aims to get 300 Lok Sabha seats in these elections, recently felt it necessary to reduce his estimate to about 270 seats, which is close to the halfway mark. The party’s strength in the last Lok Sabha was 182.

The key question, however, is whether the party will be able to repeat at least its 1999 performance, and if it aims to reach the halfway mark, then where will the additional seats come from. While BJP leaders are unwilling to be specific on their expectations, an indication is available from the party’s strategy.

BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan told Frontline that the party had commissioned a market research agency (which he did not name) to gather information about constituencies in a few "important" States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Assam and Orissa. Obviously, these are considered "important" because in these States it is not sure of repeating, let alone bettering, its performance. The party has not commissioned similar surveys in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, as, Mahajan claimed, the results of the earlier ones done for the Assembly elections in December last year were sufficient.

In Uttar Pradesh - considered a crucial State in determining the party’s fortunes in the Hindi heartland - the BJP won 29 out of the 77 seats it contested in 1999. The BJP, Mahajan claimed, would register gains in Uttar Pradesh. While former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh’s return to the party recently is expected to boost the morale of the cadre, how many additional seats he can fetch is not clear. The BJP contested the 1999 elections in Uttar Pradesh with Kalyan Singh as its leader, and therefore Mahajan’s optimism about the party’s prospects now defies logic. The BJP suffered further erosion in its strength in the Assembly elections held later, after Kalyan Singh was expelled from the party.

That the BJP felt it necessary to assess its strength in Bihar and Jharkhand, where it won 24 out of the 29 seats it contested in 1999, is significant. Bihar and Jharkhand are not among the States where it expects to make "gains". It indicates that the BJP is not sure about repeating its 1999 performance in these States. In Orissa, it won all nine seats it contested in alliance with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in 1999. But the party has put Orissa in the same "problem" category under which it has placed Assam and Maharashtra, where also surveys have been commissioned to assess the party’s strength - another indication that the BJP, which has already reached a saturation point in Orissa, is only bound to lose in these elections because of the anti-incumbency factor as it is sharing power with the BJD. The BJP may well gain seats - as its internal assessment has shown - from Karnataka, Assam and Rajasthan, but there is no answer as to how it could stop its erosion in States where it registered comfortable victories in 1999.

The surveys, Mahajan said, would help the party to decide candidates and the way resources should be distributed for the campaign. These are extensive surveys, done all over a State, and apparently require a year’s notice to be organised. The party is also planning to organise a "quick" second survey in these States after the selection of candidates in order to help identify issues at the national and local levels - a clear indication that the party has been running its "hyped" campaign all these days without any understanding of the "real" issues the voters are concerned about.

As the party’s "Vision Document" shows, the BJP’s unique selling point in these elections is the persona of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has been projected as the embodiment of India’s best political traditions - a debatable claim. It is up to the electorate to judge whether the BJP’s attempt to convert this round of elections into a plebiscite on Vajpayee’s leadership will succeed.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic : BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan and president M. Venkaiah Naidu with Union Ministers Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj releasing the "Vision Document" at the party headquarters in New Delhi.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 08, April 10 - 23, 2004.

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