Shimla to Ranchi:
Like the pre-Gujarat February Assembly elections held last year, this year too February proved quite fateful for the BJP. In spite of the BJP’s best attempts, Himachal Pradesh refused to go the Gujarat way. To create the right ambience to fashion a second successive win after Gujarat, the VHP held a Dharam Sansad in Delhi where the Togadias and Dharmendras once again went berserk over Ayodhya. Campaigning in Himachal, Vajpayee reiterated his ‘personal commitment’ to causes like Ram temple and ban on cow slaughter. Advani spoke about the NDA government’s readiness to enact special legislations to this end. And there was also Modi who came and saw with his genocidal glasses. But he was just not the monarch of what he surveyed. Himachal was not for him to conquer.
In February 2003, the BJP lost the Himachal poll as badly as it had lost in Uttaranchal and UP in February 2002. The Himachal elections seemed to carry the same message for India as the post Gulf War Presidential poll had done in the United States. Smug with the military victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, George Bush had hoped to return to the White House riding on the wave of what he perceived as the American sense of victory and pride. The US had just won the Cold War as well as the Gulf War. Instead, he was handed out a most emphatic defeat. Bill Clinton, who won the day, made that famous statement “It’s the economy, stupid!” That is exactly what Himachal seemed to say. The Himachal voters were just not bothered about Vajpayee’s commitment to the temple or to protection of cows. Their minds were preoccupied with the mundane issues of vanishing jobs, rising prices and institutionalised economic loot that goes by the name of corruption.
In terms of electoral results, the BJP had little consolation elsewhere to compensate for the rout in Himachal. The party’s dream of opening its account in Tripura and Meghalaya remained as elusive as ever. But in Nagaland the party hit a jackpot of sorts winning as many as five seats. The BJP ideologues in Delhi tried their best to claim that the party’s success in ‘Christian-dominated’ Nagaland was proof enough that the party was no longer being viewed by Christians as anti-minority, let alone as Christian-bashers and that it also heralded the beginning of the BJP’s eventual arrival in the traditionally Congress-dominated north-eastern region of the country. But the BJP knows it very well that its first victory in Nagaland has been won entirely on the basis of its present understanding with the NSCN(I-M). The BJP has followed up its deal with the NSCN(I-M) with an accord with some of the Bodo movement organisations. While the BJP can hope to reap some primary electoral benefits from its new-found politics of accords, it must remember that unfulfilled accords can prove to be a bigger liability for the party in the days to come.
The BJP tried to explain away its debacle in Himachal in terms of organisational infighting. The party admitted to have faced a rebel candidate in every second seat. However, while the party leadership called for organisational streamlining, in distant Jharkhand the BJP-led government was soon faced with a major rebellion. It may be remembered that Gujarat apart, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are the only other states where the BJP is still in power. But while in Gujarat the BJP runs its own show, in UP it has to play second fiddle to Mayawati’s BSP and in Jharakhand the survival of the government depends permanently on its ability to keep the smaller partners in good humour.
Even with the support of all its available allies, the BJP could never cobble a comfortable majority in Jharkhand. And outside of the Assembly, the BJP-led coalition has always been faced with a serious crisis of credibility. In the eyes of large sections of the indigenous social forces of Jharkhand, the BJP government never had any legitimacy. Badly isolated from the mainstream of the Jharkhandi society, the Babulal Marandi government tried to secure its existence either through coercion or by playing the divide-and-rule card. True to Advani’s promise of making Jharkhand an ideal police state, the BJP rule in the newly created state has all along been identified with unbridled police repression and wholesale arrests under the draconian POTA. Simultaneously, the government has also been trying to create some durable social constituencies by playing around sensitive issues like tribal reservation and domicile policy.
Yet, the net upshot of all these exercises has been nothing but a continuing intensification of political instability. Early in its life, the government had lost its majority on the floor during its first budget session. But at that time survival could be ensured with the complicity of the Speaker. This time around, however, the Speaker himself had started fancying himself as the next chief minister with the support of seven non-BJP rebel ministers and the opposition. The BJP had no other option but to give in to the rebel demand of changing the chief minister. As we go to press the rebellion seems to have been tamed for the time being, but the infighting in the NDA camp and inside the BJP can perhaps only grow. The authority of the BJP has taken a body blow and more and more people are rallying around the demand for dissolution of the Assembly and holding of fresh elections.