President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Voters Defy Predictions

By M H Ahssan

The Congress party’s surprisingly good showing in India's state assembly elections has not only given the party a boost ahead of general elections next spring, but also provides useful pointers for political parties charting their strategies for the upcoming showdown. Voters have sent out a clear signal that they are not impressed by parties hoping to derive the maximum political mileage from terrorist attacks.

The Congress, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, went into the assembly elections on the back foot, having to defend its rather poor performance in tackling terrorism and controlling fuel and commodity prices. However, it was able to hold on to Delhi for the third time in a row, wrest control of Rajasthan in northwestern India from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and come to power with an impressive two-thirds majority in the northeastern state of Mizoram, after a decade in the political wilderness there.

The BJP retained control over Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in central India, while the results for the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has completed four rounds of voting and has another three to go, will be known at the end of December. No date has been set for the national polls, but they must be held by May, when the current government’s term expires.

The assembly elections are important for several reasons. They have been described as the "semi-final" ahead of the general elections, and the results will help parties determine their electoral platforms for the big vote.

Congress' results are a reversal of its electoral fortunes in recent years. Since it came to power in May 2004, Congress has lost 16 out of 25 assembly elections. It has not won a single large state since 2005; and the few victories it has managed were in small states such as Goa and Puducherry.

That jinx has now been broken, and what seemed like a terminal slide for the Congress has been arrested. The victories in the polls will give it much needed confidence ahead of the general elections. And allies that might have been thinking of abandoning it ahead of the national vote for its poor electoral performance could now decide to stick with the party.

More importantly, the election results show the BJP’s harping on about the terror issue and its cynical exploitation of public alarm over the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai did not work.

Of the states which went to the polls recently, only Chhattisgarh had finished voting before the attacks on Mumbai. Madhya Pradesh voted on November 27 and Delhi two days later. Polling in Mizoram and Rajasthan was held on December 2 and 4, respectively.

India has been hit by a nationwide wave of terrorist attacks in recent months, and the BJP has often accused the government of being "soft on terrorism". This campaign turned shriller following the Mumbai attacks, after which the BJP issued a blood-red, front-page advertisement in the Hindustan Times, an English daily with a very large readership, ahead of the Delhi polls reading: "Brutal Terror Strikes at Will. Weak Government Unwilling and Incapable. Fight Terror. Vote BJP." It also put up hoardings in cities and sent out text messages to hundreds of thousands of voters, blaming the Congress for the attacks.

At a time when public anger with the government’s repeated failure to protect ordinary civilians from terrorism has assumed serious proportions, it was widely believed that the terrorist attacks, especially the ones in Mumbai, would favor the BJP. Analysts predicted and politicians felt voters would succumb to the BJP's fear-mongering.

Both Delhi and Rajasthani have suffered brutal terrorist attacks, and although they have a sizeable population sympathetic to the BJP’s Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) ideology, the BJP’s tough talk on terrorism did not pay off electorally. Its divisive campaign, while likely to have struck a chord in many, did not get it the number of votes it needed to win Delhi.

The BJP is not the first party to have used terrorist attacks and the fear they generate to win elections. In 1984, when prime minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by Sikh terrorists, the Congress launched a virulent election campaign that portrayed Sikhs in general as terrorists. Advertisements and hoardings spoke of the threat they posed to national security. “Your neighbor could be a terrorist," said advertisements, which had pictures of turbaned Sikhs. The campaign worked. The Congress won with a landslide majority.

More recently, the Republicans and US President George W Bush played on American fears of terrorist attacks in the 2004 presidential election. That campaign worked too and Bush was elected for a second term.

But the Indian voters, often dismissed as illiterate and ill-informed, did not allow the BJP’s campaign to determine their electoral choices.The election result indicates that voters are unwilling to pin the blame for India’s vulnerability to terrorism on one party alone and that they are uneasy with politicizing terrorism.

The issue of credible governance was more important for voters. In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi voters returned incumbent governments to power, the BJP in the first two, where welfare programs for farmers and women played a role in keeping voters on its side, and the Congress in Delhi. In Rajasthan and Mizoram, voters endorsed the opposition Congress over incumbents.

What are the lessons that parties can draw from the polls? For the BJP, the election results should serve as a reminder that its divisive politics will not work. As for the Congress, there is a danger that it could draw the wrong lessons from the verdict and go back to its lethargic approach to tacking terrorism. But it needs to see the writing on the wall. Voters are not unconcerned about terrorism, but they also expect good governance, which includes responding adequately to development issues as well as internal security needs.

The semi-final contest is effectively a draw between India's two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, with voters putting both parties on notice. The party that draws the right lessons from the "semi-final" will hold the advantage going into the general election.

However, both parties will have to tread cautiously in drawing lessons from the assembly elections, as the factors influencing them in general elections are quite different, as previous elections have indicated. The assembly elections provide pointers that politicians and analysts will pounce on to make grand predictions for the general election, but past elections show the need for caution. Six months is a long time in politics and the mood of voters can change dramatically.

India is too large a country and too complex a democracy for politicians and analysts to make easy predictions. What the election underscores yet again is that both would do well to approach the Indian voter with more humility.
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