Saturday, December 06, 2008

Editorial: It's now Bijli, Sadak, Pani and Terror

By M H Ahssan

Driving through Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, just a few days before the terrorist attack in Mumbai, one got the distinct impression that bijli, sadak and pani (BSP) firmly remained the key issues impacting the assembly elections in both states.

More importantly, terrorism was not even remotely seen as an issue with the electorate, even though the BJP’s central leaders had tried their best to politicise the Malegaon terror episode. This may have changed after the Mumbai attacks. It is now emphatically bijli, sadak, pani and terrorism (BSPT), not necessarily in that order.

Congress party leaders admit privately that the terrorist strike could have instantly given the BJP the extra advantage in crucial states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi which voted just after the black Wednesday. Of course, the full debate on terrorism will play out at the general elections five months from now.

By then things may look a bit different as some distance from the event brings greater perspective. The Congress still has time to demonstrate its seriousness in tackling the growing threat of terror. Five months, after all, is a long time in politics.

The BJP will also try to appropriate, as much as possible, the issue of national security in the context of terrorism. It will be somewhat constrained by the unwieldy manner in which it sought to communalise the terror issue — though L K Advani is now correcting his course saying that he was merely on the issue of how the Maharashtra ATS had tortured the sadhvi allegedly involved in the Malegaon bomb blasts.

The BJP is already going through its own contortions to explain away its earlier stand on Maharashtra ATS chief Karkare, who fell to the terrorist’s bullet.

There will be a much more nuanced play of the terror issue in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the results of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi will help in gauging how the Congress and BJP would evolve their campaign strategy for general elections.

Barely three days before the Mumbai terror attack, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan candidly admitted to some journalists who met him at his Bhopal residence that there was a lot of anti-incumbency working at the constituency level. He also conceded that national level issues such as terrorism were not a factor at all at that time.

However, the chief minister felt confident that his positive image, linked with a larger vision for the state would beat the anti-incumbency at the level of MLAs. The biggest factor working against the BJP at the MLA level was the absence of bijli and pani, the very slogan which helped the party throw the Congress out of power five years ago. On an average, across Madhya Pradesh, villages are getting electricity just about five hours a day. Sans power, farmers are unable to pump up ground water.

Chouhan was honest enough to admit that part of the failure was caused by the dependence of the state on hydel power from Narmada river which did not have much water this year due to low rainfall. “What was supposed to generate 2,200MW is now only giving 800MW”, Chouhan said.

Despite the odds, Chouhan is seen as a winning horse because of what many see as his ability to connect with the poor in the state. Put simply, he is a 24x7 grassroots politician.

Does Congress have one in Madhya Pradesh? It is interesting to note that Chouhan tries to model himself as a strong regional leader like Narendra Modi, who is seen as having a finger on the pulse of the people. One also saw in Madhya Pradesh shades of Modi’s Gujarat strategy. For instance, Chouhan has fielded a large number of fresh faces to beat anti-incumbency at the local level.

Of course, the Congress’s major criticism against the chief minister is that he has promised a lot and done little. Even if that were true, it might be difficult for the Congress to cover the massive deficit in the total vote share it suffered in the last assembly elections.

In 2003, the BJP cornered 42% of the total votes polled in Madhya Pradesh, with the Congress bagging only 31%. Other things remaining the same, the Congress needs a 5% plus swing away from the BJP to cover the vote deficit, which seems like a tall order. The terrorist strike in Mumbai a day before the polling in the state may have made things even more difficult for the Congress.

The Congress, it would appear, has a much better chance of exploiting the anti-incumbency factor in Rajasthan where it lags behind the BJP in vote share by just 3%. It needs a 1.5% plus swing in its favour to challenge the BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, who seems to be banking largely on her personal charisma, with not much help from the rest of the BJP leadership either at the state or central level. The party apparatus does not seem to have backed her to the hilt.

The Congress is somewhat better organised in Rajasthan this time and Vasundhara’s distance from her party leadership could help swing the state away from the BJP. Again, it is not clear how the issue of terrorism will play out in Rajasthan whose capital has been a target of major terror strikes in recent times. The voter turnout in Rajasthan, though, was quite high.

In Delhi, it seemed very clear that the sudden surge in voting after the Mumbai attack clearly reflected some anxiety among the urban middle class over the issue of national security. So, terrorism will certainly impact the outcome of the assembly polls.

The real test for India’s major political parties will come during the 2009 general elections. In many ways the Mumbai terror attacks may have already changed the discourse of national politics. Until recently, the view espoused by many political observers seemed to be that both the Congress and the BJP were in disarray and that a reinvented third front could emerge with Mayawati playing a key role.

The third front becomes a strong possibility if the Congress and BJP together fall well below the half way mark in the 545-seat Lok Sabha. At present the two main parties are a little above the half-way mark of 273 seats.

However, as national security and terrorism gain centre stage, as they are most likely to do, in the Lok Sabha elections, the electorate might prefer a coalition that is led by a stronger national party. This is an opportunity for both the BJP and the Congress. The contest to appropriate the national security plank should be quite engaging.

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