It’s the best of results in the worst of times: after defeats in Punjab, Uttaranchal, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, three victories for the Congress at a time when inflation, economic slowdown and one of the country’s worst terror attacks were overshadowing the agenda. The elections, perceived to be the semifinal ahead of the big one in 2009, have certainly given the Congress the much-needed momentum it’s been lacking after 13 defeats since it came to power in 2004.
The perception may shift, but it’s clear these elections give neither coalition a sense of comfort. They have certainly pushed the BJP into strategizing whether terror works at all times in all places. It certainly did to some extent when mixed with development in Madhya Pradesh. But the victory in that state was clearly Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s—the man who added 40,000km of roads during his tenure and compensated for his lack of stature with a vision of development.
In total, many would argue that this verdict is perhaps more significant for the Congress than for the BJP. The Congress was fighting against two major issues—inflation and terror—that were expected to go against it, especially in the national capital. But, for all her imperfections, Sheila Dikshit managed to send a message that was a forward-looking one compared with her rival’s negative campaign. At 71, the energetic, forceful, matronly aunt carefully managed to convey that the face that dominated Delhi politics for a decade was still capable of standing for change.
Returning three incumbent chief ministers to power in an atmosphere of high prices, economic gloom and terror is an important political statement. The Indian electorate has once again shown that it knows best. Good governance, clean image and humility towards the electorate do matter. The low-key Chouhan focused on the bijli-sadak-pani (electricity-road-water) issues while his central leadership was playing the politics of polarization and trying to turn attention to the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya. The BJP will want to introspect on why it did better in states that went to the polls before the Mumbai attacks—Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—and worse in states such as Delhi and Rajasthan which voted during or after the attacks. Perhaps the electorate felt terror was an issue they wanted their polity to be united on and not one which should be exploited for votes.
Conventional election wisdom that a government of 10 years will lose due to anti-incumbency has now proved to be a complacent ideology. The new model is that of Raman Singh, where the doctor mixed populist schemes of subsidized rice with a tough anti-Naxal stand and an image of a good human being and capable politician with no corruption charge. The verdict is simple and very real in places; the vote of confidence goes to the party with an actionable agenda and a good leadership to back it.
Verdict 2008 is the best for Indian democracy because it means no side can breathe easy. Neither the first family of the Congress nor the BJP’s central leadership has been able to tap into the national mood or connect to wider constituencies. The five assembly elections have been won by local leaders with local issues. And there’s nothing to prove that this may not be repeated six months from now when we face general election. The BJP can no longer afford to think it’s the government-in-waiting and the Congress may be losing time to put its house in order.
The 3-2 score line gives the UPA only a limited relief before campaigning starts for the 2009 election, in which the Indian electorate may well decide that what works in the state, doesn’t quite work at the Centre.
Anubha Bhonsle is senior editor, CNN IBN. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org