Debating India


Growing Unease

Saturday 25 September 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Midway through the elections, the BJP seems to have lost its decisive edge and bravado as it faces the prospect of losing ground in the pivotal State of Uttar Pradesh.

in Lucknow and Faizabad

SINCE 1991 when it won 120 seats in the Lok Sabha as the champion of an unalloyed form of political sectarianism, the Bharatiya Janata Party has set much store by the two States of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These two States accounted for 63 of th e 120 seats it won in the 1991 elections, 79 of its 161 seats in 1996, and 87 of its 182 seats in 1998. There has undoubtedly been a slow process of diversification of the sources of the BJP’s power at the Centre. But the dependence on these two States, which between them account for 125 seats in the Lok Sabha, still remains heavy.

Against this background, the curious loss of momentum and initiative on the part of the BJP, just when the polling process has shifted to these two pivotal States, should occasion some surprise. What had been forecast in early opinion polls as a triumpha l romp for the BJP and its allies now seems more closely to resemble a hard slog in the home stretch. What should have been the most comfortable electoral majority for any ruling formation in 15 years could now turn into a wafer-thin margin, susceptible to every manner of disruption from the fractious alliance that the BJP has led into electoral battle.

The inherent imperfections of the craft of poll forecasting were evidently not given sufficient attention in the early predictions of a sweeping triumph for the BJP. In a context that witnesses a diversity of configurations in the States - from bipolar t o multi-cornered contests - there is no credible methodology for accurately converting the vote percentages obtained from opinion polls into a forecast of seats won. This debility is especially acute since all the forecasts were premised upon a broad cho ice of national voter samples and did not pay sufficient attention to the minutiae of the various States.

Aside from these imperfections, the pollsters evidently did not factor the disorienting effects of the "Kargil inflation" into their calculations. Conducted for the most part before polling actually began in an unprecedentedly long election schedule, sur veys of voting behaviour were easily beguiled by the pervasive aura of national well-being that the Kargil victory created. But just as the euphoria of military victory exerted an undue influence over the early rounds of polling, its impact on the later rounds tended towards a progressive dilution. It just so happens that the latter three rounds of polling take in all the constituencies in U.P., and 26 of the 40 constituencies in M.P.

Ultimately, it is on the outcome in U.P. that the fortunes of the BJP-led coalition will revolve. Since single-party dominance of Indian democracy was shaken in 1967 and irretrievably shattered in 1989, several changes of regime have been witnessed in De lhi. In 1991, P.V. Narasimha Rao managed to put together a tenuous parliamentary majority - premised upon the goodwill of several parties that had greater reason to oppose the BJP than the Congress(I) - with only five seats from U.P. The United Front coa lition that followed had a more substantial parliamentary representation of 19 from the State.

Except for these two interludes, U.P. has always been a decisive factor in any change of regime at the Centre. The transformation of the BJP from its role of Opposition in 1991, to short-lived power in 1996 and then a relatively more durable tenure in au thority in 1998, has been underpinned by its ability to keep this pivotal State firmly in its corner.

Today, for the first time since it was famously thwarted by an alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 1993 Assembly elections, the BJP faces the prospect of actually losing ground in U.P. These expectations have acquired an un mistakable aura of menace for the party’s plans to ride back to power. Emergency measures have been initiated to retrieve ground that rapidly threatens to slip out from under the party in the Lok Sabha constituencies that go to the polls on September 25 and October 3. These include raising the pitch of the campaign in all the constituencies by drafting a number of the BJP’s more prominent central leaders.

SEVERAL factors have converged to generate this turbulence in the last phase of the BJP’s triumphal march. First, the social coalitions crafted in the crucible of the campaign for the temple at Ayodhya have begun to come apart. Secondly, the incumbency d isadvantage is doubly compounded in the case of U.P., since the BJP has been in power at both the Centre and State levels. Public perceptions of sloppy performance by elected representatives are unlikely to be submerged in contrived projections of nation al glory acquired under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The amalgam of upper castes and backward classes that the BJP put together during the Ayodhya movement was always an unstable political combine. It only took a relatively uninterrupted occupancy of power - just under two years in this case - for all the inherent contradictions to sharpen. Today, the BJP is in mortal danger of losing the entire constituency of Lodh Rajputs, a numerically significant presence in a vast tract of central U.P. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, himself a Lodh, has conspicuously ab sented himself from an active campaign role. His rift with the Rajput-Brahmin-Bania combine, which has always contested his dominance of the party in the State, now appears to have reached a breaking point.

A number of constituency-specific initiatives have been worked out by the BJP to combat this particular threat. Uma Bharti, the saffron clad politician of backward class extraction, is being despatched to U.P. to stem the tide of defections from the rank s that Sakshi Maharaj, another politician in the robes of mendicancy, has been orchestrating. Kalyan Singh himself is being cajoled to take up the campaign in pockets where he would have no reason to object to the choice of the party’s nominees.

The extra campaign effort also includes a planned four-day tour of the State by Vajpayee just before the last phase of polling on October 3, on which day polling is scheduled to take place in 31 constituencies in the State. How far these would turn the t ide remains a matter for speculation. When ground realities turn adverse it often is futile to expect salvation from forces on-high. The BJP may additionally have reasons to worry about the outcome in M.P.

SINCE plumbing the depths with only 31 per cent of the popular vote in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress(I) in M.P. has set itself on a steady path upwards. It obtained 39 per cent of the vote in 1998 and dramatically raised its share to the winning figure of 45 per cent in the November Assembly elections. Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has successfully placated all sources of dissension within the party and enjoys the kind of popular acceptance that could propel the party to a similarly strong showing. That would be a decisive setback to the BJP’s ambitions of emerging with a clear-cut majority in Parliament.

The declarations of victory then were clearly premature. No longer are elections decided as a referendum on the personalities of contending political leaders. Nor indeed is the transient euphoria of military achievement an adequate substitute for the hard slog of providing a sense of direction to the task of administration at the Centre. Although it seems the most likely outcome of the 1999 elections is that the BJP and its allies would be given the first claim to the formation of a government at the Ce ntre, few today would be prepared to swear that the second Vajpayee administration will be in any way more purposive or more durable than the first.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 20, Sep. 25 - Oct. 08, 1999

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