Debating India

GENERAL ELECTIONS 99

Now for the verdict

Saturday 9 October 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

As the marathon polling exercise ends, attention turns to the shape of governments to come.

in New Delhi

THE Bharatiya Janata Party had obviously preserved the choicest specimens in its vocabulary of political invective for the home stretch of the marathon election season. Lal Krishna Advani rode into West Bengal deriding the dominant Left Front as mere "palanquin bearers" for the Congress(I). The veteran Marxist Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, responded suitably by denouncing Advani as a "criminal" guilty of the demolition of a place of worship in Ayodhya. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in high dudgeon, demanded a personal apology for the insult inflicted on the Union Home Minister. Chief Minister Basu, at the time of writing, was in no mood to oblige.

Advani chose to portray renewed talk of the relevance of a "Third Front" as evidence of political confusion on the Left. The reality perhaps is that there is now an increasing likelihood that the BJP’s leadership role within the National Democratic Allia nce (NDA) will be eroded by the numerical outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. This could unfetter some of the partners of the BJP-led front and allow them greater latitude to strike up political bargains in the future. The NDA being essentially an effort at numerical vote consolidation rather than an ideological fraternity, the BJP could well have to contend with fresh political headaches once the final arithmetic of the 13th Lok Sabha becomes clear.

EARLY projections of a triumphal romp for the BJP and its allies, it later transpired, were premised upon an assumption that the sense of national bonding and euphoria that the Kargil military operations engendered would be sustained through the election campaign, overriding contingent problems on the ground. This was not a very sound proposition for several reasons. The course of the election campaign - in particular the manifest sense of panic within the BJP’s ranks over political events and trends in Uttar Pradesh - has proven that the "wave effect" that was so pronounced until 1984 is now decisively a thing of the past.

All of the social sections that were united in uneasy alliance under the BJP banner in U.P. have strong political stakes in maximising their parliamentary representation. They were disinclined to cede their perceived right to political prominence to a Pr ime Minister basking in the glow of a military triumph. In the case of U.P., Vajpayee himself was seen not so much as a detached observer but an active element in the BJP’s factional turmoil. In assuming that the Prime Minister’s newly won moral authorit y would drown out the compulsion of appeasing every faction, the BJP strategists seem to have grievously erred. The response of U.P. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, which just stops short of open rebellion, is a deeply embarrassing development, which threat ens to erode considerably the Vajpayee halo.

The bad news for the BJP is that the States where it is the dominant electoral presence in its own right are unlikely to give it the harvest of seats it garnered in 1998. Problems are at their most acute in U.P., although Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan als o seem to be posing their own difficulties. Bitter infighting within the U.P. unit, and a relatively cohesive challenge from the Congress(I) in M.P. and Rajasthan, have ensured that the core area of the BJP’s strength will be relatively less rewarding th is time around.

The erosion of the party’s strength in these States could conceivably be remedied through fresh gains in Bihar and Maharashtra. But in both these States, the BJP is one among equals, and in the case of Bihar, its partner is only loosely affiliated to it in terms of ideological commitments. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka could also bring it certain gains, of a relatively less decisive character in the latter State. In A.P., though, the BJP is quite clearly the junior partner in the NDA, having yielded most of the seats to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

The strategic alliances which have been a large part of the success of the BJP could, in the post-election scenario, engender a fresh set of difficulties. Except for Maharashtra, where its partner shares a strong element of ideological commitment with it , the other States present a uniform picture of contingent alliances, oriented towards the limited objective of maximising electoral gains. What this means for the core ideological programme of the BJP in the post-electoral scenario, when conceivably the NDA will be given the first call to form a government, remains to be seen. There is a strong possibility that even if the alliance that it leads exceeds its total tally of seats in the last Lok Sabha, the BJP’s own influence within will be rather dimini shed.

THE ally that is most likely to increase its clout within the NDA is the newly "united" Janata Dal bloc led by Ramakrishna Hegde and George Fernandes. Also performing strongly in the campaign is the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, which has gained ground on a ccount of a virtual abandonment of the Congress(I) by the Janaki Ballabh Patnaik faction. Among the new partners, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the TDP would be pressing for positions of influence.

Considering that the Janata Dal(United) in Bihar alone is likely to have a minimum of five contenders for senior Cabinet positions, the post-electoral scenario for the NDA is likely to be rocky. It is perhaps on account of an uneasy awareness of the like ly consequences for the party’s ideological commitments that there is already talk of an imminent change in the leadership of the BJP. The colourless tenure of Khushabhau Thakre as party president is unlikely to be prolonged very much further. Even if he is allowed to serve out his full tenure, he is likely to be put on notice immediately after the election results are in, of an imminent change of regime. The custodians of ideological purity in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have already indicate d that they would like somebody capable of a more purposive leadership style, such as Advani, at the helm of the party.

ONCE the results are in, there is also likely to be renewed attention to the role that election forecasts have played in this campaign. There was a virtual glut in the market for projections after the Election Commission’s rather weak and legally infirm effort to restrain them failed. Many of these failed even to make a pretence of subtlety, plainly putting on view their partisan loyalties. To an extent, the multitude of conflicting or varying projections that have been made by rival agencies provide th e best negative advertisement of the accuracy of opinion and exit polls. But the matter is not one that can be wished away quite so easily, especially in a context of a reassertion of government control over the official electronic media.

To work out the various political possibilities that could emerge from the 13th Lok Sabha elections may at this stage be a pointless exercise. When the BJP assumed office in 1998, sections sympathetic to the party were known to predict confidently that i t was only one election removed from absolute power. A rather dubious record of governance in the first year of the Vajpayee government seemed to puncture this boast. Some semblance of credibility was restored to this expectation by the manifest inabilit y of the Opposition parties to work out a coherent strategy to neutralise the BJP. Kargil then gave it a renewed momentum. The campaign leading into General Elections 1999 will perhaps be remembered as the story of how this momentum was rapidly dissipated.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 21, Oct. 09 - 22, 1999

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