A General Review
The poll verdict confirms many of the general pre-election projections. As predicted coalition politics is here to stay, at least for the near future. With no working majority for any party there is a hung parliament leading to post-election realignments of various parties.
While the overall mandate posits a triangular contest, yet in most of the states the contest was essentially bipolar. In 10 of the 17 major states that account for 97% parliamentary constituencies, the combined vote percentage of the first two parties was more than 70%. Except for Bihar and UP where an anti-BJP and anti-JD (or SP, BSP) polarisation was seen, rest of the states witnessed an anti-Cong. polarisation.
A debacle for the Congress was also very much on the cards. There is an anti-Congress mandate but certainly not an overwhelming anti-Congress wave to the extent of finishing it off for good. As is seen in these elections, inspite of a major loss in vote percentage, Congress was still in contention in 14 of these states. With respect to seats, the former still holds a position among the top two in 370 of them, 234 of these where it polled second, while the latter has prominence in 255, in 95 of which it stood second.
Historic Rout of Congress
The Congress rout this time is historic. Few years hence when one looks back at the
electoral history of India, the 11th General Elections would probably stand out as the one
which effected the actual rout of the traditional party of the ruling class, the
Congress(I). It has faced many a debacle in the past but this unprecedented humiliation is
not a temporary ebb in the fluctuating tides of political fortunes but coming on expected
lines, fits perfectly in the trajectory of its massive downfall.
Its rout stands out not just by its being unseated from power but by recording its worst ever performance in the electoral history of independent India. Falling steadily from 1989, its support has dwindled to 28.1% of the electorate, a fall of 20% from its record 1984 performance when it won riding on the crest of a sympathy wave, 11.4% from its poor 1989 show and 8.4% from its paltry 1991 performance. But this is the first time when its vote share fell below 30%, the lowest was in 1977 (34.5%). Even its tally of 136 seats is the lowest ever, 18 below its earlier low in 1977. And all this without a strong anti-Congress wave like in 1977 or 1989 or without any strong, unified oppositional challenge. While there are some green patches to talk about in its overall dry performance this time, there are other patches which have turned barren for it, probably for good.
Its thorough drubbing in the Hindibelt is in line with its dismal performance in last year's assembly elections in Bihar, a state where its prospects had been virtually sealed off earlier with the upsurge of JD in the 1989 elections and the rise of BJP to the position of principal opposition (See box on Bihar). In neighbouring UP, the story was much the same for Congress. With every successive election from 1989 its vote share has dropped drastically: to 8.3% in these elections from a one time high of 51% in 1984. With 5 seats, very much like Bihar, it is in a stage of no-recovery. Here too a 25% strong forwards lobby (Brahmin, Thakur, Vaishyas and Kayasthas) no longer stands for it. A larger loss came in these elections with the large section of the Muslims (about 16% in the state) opting to vote for either SP or BSP. This shift had already taken place in the 1993 assembly elections. The Sangh Parivar's demolition of the Babri Masjid and the ensuing riots in Kanpur, Lucknow and other cities in UP, all with the connivance of the Rao government at the centre, had shocked the Muslims in the state and many felt betrayed by Congress' 'secular' protection. And now when it clamours to keep out the communal forces from the centre, the credibility of its own 'secular' credentials have been proven in these elections.
In Madhya Pradesh, though polling only 4.7%, Indira Congress (Tiwari) was instrumental in ensuring the defeat of the official Congress candidates as in many of the constituencies the votes polled by the IC(T) was greater than the margin of defeat of the official candidates. However, once the pretender to the Congress throne, Arjun Singh couldn't even pull up a personal victory in his own constituency. A long-standing support base of the Congress, dalits and tribals constituting about 23% and 14% of the population, also deserted it as it could get only 4 out of the 15 reserved constituencies in MP. BSP, nowhere in the pre-poll reckoning, pulled up a major surprise by getting a positive swing of over 11% in their favour.
The Southern Shock
But what came as a shock for the Congress was its major reversal in the South. This support base which had catapulted Rao to power in 1991, let him down miserably. Congress collapsed like a pack of cards along with its ally, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. It was a loud and clear mandate against the corrupt, autocratic and oppressive Jayalalitha regime. Her five-year rule was marked by high-handed and arrogant style of functioning, politicisation of the bureaucracy and the police, ostentatious show of power and wealth and the worst ever oppression of the dalits, which had sparked of caste riots in the southern districts of the state few months back. In spite of strong resistance from the state unit against having any truck with the AIADMK and a strong public resentment against the government, Rao went ahead with the alliance and in the process along with losing a major chunk of seats for inching closer to majority at the centre, he lost a powerful section of the Congress. In Karnataka, it lost 12% of the votes and has been relegated to the third position in the state behind the BJP. Even though it could save some face in Andhra Pradesh in terms of seats, thanks to the split in the TDP, there too its vote share has dropped by 5.38.
In Assam, Saikia's heavy reliance on army deployment in the state had created a reign of terror which saw a crackdown on one of the bloodiest insurgencies by ULFA and militancy in Bodoland and an escalated attack on the tribal population. Its failure to implement the Bodo Accord (1993) and diversion of funds meant for tribal development ensured the defeat of Congress. In Orissa, it was just able to retain the position reached in the assembly elections. At the same time JD failed to capitalise on the public's growing disenchantment with JB Patnaik's government as was seen in the very poor turnout at the election rallies that Rao addressed in the state.
In Maharashtra, the Congress' hopes of regaining Muslim (about 9%) support were dashed
by the emergence of a third force. It was due to Muslims abandoning Congress that the
party fared so poorly in the last assembly elections. The all-powerful sugar and cotton
lobby also turned against the Congress for its large-scale bungling in the cooperative
elections. Even with a communal party holding power in the state and the withdrawal of the
Srikrishna Commission investigating into the Bombay riots of 1992-93, the Congress
couldn't convert the ire of the Muslims in their favour. These votes ultimately shifted to
the third force and independents. This election also saw the emergence of the United
Republican Party (RPI), a coalition of various factions of RPI which cut into the dalit
votebank of Congress in the Bombay and the Vidharbha region. Its chances were further
spoiled with a serious division within the party which was weakened during the last
Economic reforms and corruption, the two interrelated issues, are mainly responsible for the debacle of Congress. Even after the unprecedented poll defeat, the votaries of reforms go on claiming that the election outcome was in no way akin to a referendum on NEP. Like the proverbial ostrich they assert that NEP was no election issue at all. Even the poll pundits, not quite willing to acknowledge this obvious reason owing to their class position, try to explain away the Congress debacle abstractly with the theory of 'disintegration of social coalition' as if the social forces have moved away for no reason at all. Five years back Rao had claimed with a visionary zeal to rejuvenate the Indian economy and put it on the globally competitive track. His trusted lieutenant, Manmohan Singh kept assuring the nation that all was well with the economy and that the fundamentals were now strong after the poor shape in which it had inherited the economy. But the economic reform package has become widely unpopular for its elitism. The sufferers were the rural poor and dalits. Some marginal benefits may have accrued to the urban middle class, but large parts of urban and agrarian poor failed to gain anything from the reforms. Structural changes such as this might not have become a burning campaign issue bringing in immediate electoral swings but seen over a period of time its effect has been telling.
A situation of uncertainty hung in front of the voter before the polls. A hung parliament was inevitable. Even in such a situation, the stability plank offered by Congress could not win back its lost support. Corruption too played a role in reducing its chances though hawala couldn't assume the same importance as Bofors had in the 1989 verdict. Dissidence at all rungs of its organisation further reveals the growing cracks in the ruling party.
Muslim voters had since independence stood by the Congress which in turn projected a liberal Hindu image. With the rise of the BJP and the threat of a rightist take over of the state, they expected the Congress to stand by them but felt thoroughly betrayed by it due to its role during Ayodhya. Hence they started moving away from Congress. The third force was able to sway about half of this important constituency even though Congress still holds some sway (according to UNI analysis about 28% of Muslim voters) specially in those states where no other secular alternative exists.
Limits of BJP
Its success story, as per the UNI analysis, is largely due to consolidation in its existing territory rather than any horizontal spread. Large parts of India still lie outside its fairly well marked out boundary. With a limited geographical contour, it is still not an alternative to Congress' national reach. Compared to all the assembly elections that took place after the last general elections in 1991, it made no substantial gain in any new state. In Karnataka where it has been pushed up by a couple of more seats the gain has been marginal. Hence, with a gain of more than 60 seats it could record a marginal increase of only 2.7% of the votes, also showing that it couldn't capitalise much on the Congress' loss in terms of votes.
None of its campaign issues, even the high-pitched clamour for change, could evoke a significant tilt of votes in its favour. While Ram Lehar was not in the wind, others like Swadeshi, Kashmir, Uniform Civil Code, etc. couldn't create much of an impact with the electorate. Its 'Soft Hindutva' also could not cut much ice. Denial of a clear mandate also shows that it has not yet replaced Congress fully as an all-India party in terms of spread.
However, for the first time, these elections saw a certain advance in the Mandalisation of BJP. Till before these elections its vote bank largely centered on the upper castes, except perhaps in UP and Gujarat where it had won over sections of middle castes. However, this time it has also struck equations with sections of erstwhile Mandalites like Samata. Its performance in Bihar show that it has eaten into the backwards vote bank of JD, mainly the kulak and neo-rich, middle sections of this strata, especially Kurmi and Koeri castes.
In Uttar Pradesh, due to the BSP and the SP contesting separately, it could regain almost the same position as in 1991 but its increase was marginal. There is no indication that its lending support to a dalit chief minister in UP had displeased the upper castes. On the other hand, its support to Mayawati didn't get much of dalit sympathy for it either, whether in UP or in other states. Last elections it had comfortably won all the four seats in Uttarakhand. This time it lost out in two of the seats and pulled up narrow-margin victories in the other two. In this region however, its support has dropped by 10% which has gone in favour of the Tiwari Congress. During the past two years of the ongoing movement its efforts to exploit it for electoral gains by promising Uttaranchal to the people failed badly.
The party recovered considerable ground in terms of seats in Madhya Pradesh where dissidence in the Congress was a helping factor. However it didn't increase its political base as its vote percentage was nearly the same as that in 1990 Vidhan Sabha elections when it came to power or the Lok Sabha elections in 1991. Here again, a very small swing in its favour got it majority seats but it could not gain much from the 14% loss of the Congress votes. Madhya Pradesh has the largest tribal population in India. The shifting of a major section of this base away from the Congress, along with the dalits, helped it to win 9 of the 15 reserved constituencies.
Its elevation to the number two position in Karnataka comes with a positive swing of
about 8% from the 1994 assembly polls. This is still short of its 29% vote share in 1991.
It gained mostly in the coastal areas where Congress lost heavily by a drop of about 19%.
It also lost its support base by 13% in the lower plain region and by 8% in South Malnad
region, its traditional stronghold.
Infighting in the state unit of Gujarat has tarnished much of BJP's image as a party with a difference and a disciplined party. The dissension was evident during the campaign where sadhus and even the RSS openly came to the forefront to participate in the tug of war between the rival groups. This led to its losing four seats to the Congress. With a bipolar fight in the state between the Congress and BJP, the Janata Dal which came to power in the state in 1990 has been totally wiped out. Growth for the BJP in Gujarat, like in Maharashtra, is marked with a strong support from burgeoning middle-class and a neo-rich bourgeoisie. At the same time, a high level of new industrialisation and multi-national investment has also taken place in the state.
In Maharashtra, along with the Shiv Sena, it has consolidated its position in the
state, with a 8% swing. The sugar and cotton lobby, traditionally pro-Congress and strong
forces influencing the outcome in the state, especially in Western Maharashtra, was an
important factor in its gains.
Forging an alliance with Bansi Lal's HVP, BJP's gambit has clicked in Haryana. Its gain in the state was at the expense of the Congress-JD vote bank. The combine took away about 11% of the JD vote bank and reduced it down to a non-entity in the state. Its alliance tactics has given it 4 seats and 34% votes for the combine.
Apart from these regions, Hindibelt and western India, its spread has been restricted and in most of the other states it is a marginal force.
Its poll campaign had put up a liberal posture by projecting Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate. This was also to make up for the erosion of the clean party image which had been weakened with Hawala. However, with lack of any other strong issue it was banking heavily on this plank.
In spite of all efforts, the leaders of the Third Front could not recreate their 1989 show. Few of the players of 1989 are in any case outside the combine today. Janata Dal, the major component of the Front, could not pull up a significant victory. After these elections it is has been reduced down to a regional force in Bihar and Karnataka.
Jyoti Basu, showering compliments on Laloo Yadav, had once remarked that Laloo's government would continue for seventeen years. While Jyoti Basu proceeds for a fifth term, the future of Laloo's rule is at stake. The massive drubbing received by the Dal in the state has raised doubts about his government continuing in the state till the end of its full term. At the heart of the defeat is the collapse of the backward caste consolidation which brought the Janata Dal to power. At the same time BJP's mandalisation has also effected its heavy loss.
Winning 15 of the 27 seats in Karnataka it has emerged as the strongest entity in the state. It cut into the support base of the Congress and BJP by about 11% votes and 4% votes, respectively. The Muslim (about 12% in the state) vote was the key factor in favour of the JD as it was in the last assembly elections. In constituencies with more than one-fifth Muslim population JD improved its vote percentage from 29% in 1991 to 42.1% in 1996.
Continuing its poor performance from the 1995 assembly elections, JD in Orissa polled still worse than in 1995. The rise of BJP which turned out to be the major gainer, reduced the strength of the Dal. Even though, with 13% votes it is still not in a position to get a seat, BJP's positive swing of over 4% ate up much of JD's vote bank. In Central Orissa, it took away more than 7% from the JD which lost 15% votes in all in this region. It could win only four seats which is effectively three since the party supremo, Biju Patnaik won from two of these seats.
Beyond these Janata Dal got very little it can derive satisfaction from. It has been wiped out from Gujarat where the fight is now a bipolar one between Congress and BJP. In Haryana, whatever votes existed under the earlier Janata Dal in 1989 have all been lost or are with Samata Party of Devi Lal. In Uttar Pradesh, its strength has been enormously reduced. Faced with dissension in the state unit it is a marginal force. Its alliance with SP could not be impressive. In fact, BSP is just a little behind the SP-JD combine in the state. Moreover, its constituency has been coopted by its poll ally, Mulayam's SP. In Rajasthan too, it has been squeezed out in the direct power tussle between Congress and BJP.
While Mandal failed to pay any dividends this time, it has not gone beyond Mandal. Its stagnation and gradual decline in many states has much to do with the pro-reforms stance of its present leaders due to which it could not move to a comprehensive left-of-centre plank. With Laloo and Deve Gowda, adopting the centre's economic policies for their state and Laloo himself neckdeep in scams, the third front was bereft of any viable political plank. Ironically, despite such a poor performance it has emerged as the frontrunner in the government formation and one of its leaders has become the prime minister.
The combined score of LF is 53, 10 ahead of the Janata Dal. But the numbers don't indicate the actual political balance within the United Front. Even such an election outcome, the Left plays the second fiddle in the UF. The LF's performance has largely been restricted to its traditional areas of West Bengal, Kerela and Tripura. In West Bengal, the Left Front government has come to power for the fifth time but not without giving away more space to Congress. The Congress almost doubled its seats in the assembly as well as the parliamentary polls. It has made major inroads in the left's votebanks in the industrial belt of Asansol-Durgapur. The LF government's unpopular industrial policy was a major cause for losing out in these areas. The BJP which lost out half (about 6%) of its votes ultimately helped the Congress to gain in the state.
In Kerela, it was a reverse process where the saffron forces helped the left win. A rise of 1.55% for the BJP was enough to push back the Congress to the second position. The BJP with about 6% vote share took away as many vital votes that were enough for the LDF candidates to win the 10 seats which the UDF lost.
CPI has been wiped out from UP. One of its last stronghold in UP, Gazipur has fallen to
the BSP. Its candidate has been pushed to the third position. CPI(M) too has been
altogether wiped out from the Hindibelt. CPI's strength has been reduced to half in Bihar.
The decline of the CPI and CPI(M) has been gradual in these states where it has been
losing votes consistently from the 1989 elections.
Both have made marginal gains in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Assam where the alliance factor helped it to garner some seats. In Andhra Pradesh, CPI retained its Nalgonda seat and additionally won the Bhadrachalam seat. CPI(M) lost the Mriyalguda seat to the Congress but won the Khammam seat. In Tamil Nadu, CPI got 2 seats and also increased its vote percentage. In Assam CPI(M) increased its vote percentage by 6% in the Barpeta constituency while retaining the seat.
In parliamentary elections 1996, many small parties have also improved their performance while the national parties show either a stagnation or a decline. But the most important outcome of the general elections, 1996, is that fresh round of elections may not be far away.
The Dark Horse
After the fall of the Mayavati government in 1995, most critics had written off BSP of being any significance in the state politics. There had been a lot of defections following the collapse of the government, and worse still, the stigma of taking support from BJP, the party of the upper castes, would handicap it in wooing the dalit voters, it was felt. However, it has come from the dark to stage a massive gain proving wrong all pre-poll predictions about this party.
In these elections, it turned out to be the biggest gainer. It gained a massive 7% in the north zone comprising of 159 constituencies. This has pushed up its vote share to 13.77% and trebled its votes in this zone. Contesting alone in these polls, it is only 1.05% behind the SP-JD-left combine in this region. After BJP and Congress it is the third largest party in the North.
However, proportionate to its rise in votes it could not get as many seats. In all it bagged only 11 seats (in UP, MP and Punjab) out of which two are old seats that it has retained and rest are new. (See figure)
In UP its maximum gains were in the Rohilkhand region (15% swing) and somewhat lesser in Uttarakhand (a 10% increase in Nainital), inspite of the Uttarakhandis' ire against Mayawati government. Much of its gains in the plains of UP were from the losses of Congress and Janata Dal. In Rohilkhand both these parties faced a negative swing of 10% each. Its performance in Madhya Pradesh was credible with more than 4.5% increase in votes. It benefitted a lot from the loss of dalit and tribal votes from the Congress vote bank.
It has gained more than 2 lakh votes from a swing of 3% in its favour in Haryana. The
similar figures for Rajasthan are about 1% with 1.5 lakh additional votes.
Yet, BSP essentially remains a North-India-based party. It has not been able to make
rapid advances in other regions. It has gained only about 79,000 votes in the east and
more than 66,000 votes in the west regions. However, South turned out to be a dead pitch
Fighting on its own it has made substantial gains. It has built up an impressive electoral machinery based on the strength of newly emerging petty and middle bourgeoisie of dalit and OBC section of society. Wherever the emergence of this stratum is weak this party is unable to make rapid strides. This social base of this party explains why it is able to get away with ideological somersaults and opportunistic political alliances. It would be interesting to watch how the elephant march of BSP upsets the electoral equations in the forthcoming assembly polls in UP.