Last week’s confidence vote won by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) by a wide margin has instilled it with confidence and a feel-good factor about its prospects. In stark contrast, large-scale crossovers and abstentions by its MPs has plunged the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), into a crisis of confidence.
There is clearly something seriously and systemically wrong with the BJP. The party, which hailed itself as a torch- bearer of morality, is repeatedly proving to be a house of moral turpitude. Alas, the party seems to be treating every such episode as an aberration and failing in its duty to introspect and correct course.
The Congress’ delight on its win may, however, prove to be premature, as the party—and its allies—adopted blatantly unscrupulous and unprincipled methods to stay in power for a few more months. Will winning the trust vote end up being a case of winning the battle and losing the electoral wars that lay ahead? General elections are nine months away but five key states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)—go to polls in November.
Of the five states, the Congress is likely to be routed in two states where it has been in power. In Delhi, which the Congress has ruled for 10 years, inflation is likely to end its rein. In J&K, which it ruled until recently, in a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), there is a wave of anger among Hindus on withdrawal of land transferred to the Amarnath shrine board. In both Delhi and J&K, the BJP will likely be the main beneficiary of Congress’ losses. While early, my current sense is that the BJP is likely to come to power in Delhi on its own steam; it may become an important player in government formation in J&K.
As regards the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, it still remains advantage BJP in Madhya Pradesh, a close call in Rajasthan and advantage Congress in Chhattisgarh. The electoral race in these states is very finely poised and minor swings can change the nature of the outcome. In my assessment, two developments in the wake of the confidence vote may have altered the political situation in these states in favour of the BJP.
Corruption as an issue
Corruption was emerging as a major electoral issue in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where a corrupt administration, ministers and legislators have made it into a salient issue.
But with the moral high ground that the Congress had on this score in these states frittered away because of its questionable means of clinging to power in Parliament, corruption as an issue is likely to lose its sting, with the Congress likely to find it difficult to raise the issue and profit from it. This will be a major setback for state Congress leaders as the BJP-led state governments have generally delivered on other fronts and there aren’t many other big-picture themes for the opposition to try and exploit during the electoral campaign.
The BSP factor
A major fallout of the recent developments is the emergence of Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) head Mayawati as a likely prime ministerial candidate of the so-called Third Front (even if they end up calling themselves something else). This is a worrisome development for the Congress, as a resurgent BSP will poach heavily from its traditional Dalit vote bank.
Contrary to media reports of a resurgent Mayawati being a threat to the BJP, the BSP could, in my view, prove to be a major benefactor for the BJP.
Consider this: In 2003 assembly polls, the BSP won two seats each in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and polled 4% of popular vote in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and 7% in Madhya Pradesh. If the BSP were to, say, secure 10% of the popular vote, which appears likely, the BJP would return to power in these states delivering devastating defeats to the Congress. In other words, the BJP’s hopes of returning to power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, hinge heavily on the BSP’s ability to cut into the Congress’ Dalit vote bank.
The UPA government’s controversial submission to the Supreme Court that Ram Sethu cannot be worshipped because Hindu god Ram himself had destroyed it, and the J&K government’s decision to withdraw transfer of land to the Amarnath board, owing to pressure from Muslim groups, are likely to emerge as new poll issues and could also hurt the Congress’ prospects. The outcome of these state elections will set the tone for general elections, now likely in early 2009. If the Congress fails to win at least two of the three BJP-ruled states, the game could be over for the Congress at the Centre. If the BJP fails to retain two of the three states, the party’s hopes of coming to power in New Delhi will prove just that. A hope.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org