Assembly Elections: Congress Suffers a Massive December Debacle

O F THE FIVE STATES that went to the polls on November 20 and December 1, four were held by the Congress. But after the polls, the tally has turned 1-4 against the Congress. Delhi is the only consolation for a Congress that has been trounced in Madhya Pradesh and convincingly voted out in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Mizoram, the Congress did succeed in taking its tally beyond ten seats, but that was not sufficient to deny the Mizo National Front, now an NDA ally, a clear if narrow victory.

The going in M.P. was always predicted to be tough for the Congress, after all Digvijay Singh had already been at the helm for two consecutive terms. But none in the Congress camp had expected a debacle of this magnitude. In Rajasthan, a cliff-hanger was predicted. The rains had finally been good, at least good enough to take care of the inconvenient public memory of famine and starvation deaths, calculated the government. But at the end of the day, the BJP managed to win nearly 60 per cent of the seats, far surpassing its previous best tally of 95 seats. And in Chhattisgarh, no opinion poll would ever predict a defeat for Jogi, and certainly not after every television channel had gone to town with the Judev cash-on-camera tape. Yet the final outcome defied all predictions with the Congress snatching a humiliating defeat from the jaws of victory on one of its strongest grounds. Delhi of course played true to the pollsters’ predictions, but here too the Congress tally got a little pruned in the end. The Congress cup of miseries however continued to overflow even after the results were announced. After Jogi had got Judev on camera in a stunning Tehelka-type sting operation, it was the BJP’s turn to set a trap for Jogi and lead him straight into it. Jogi had successfully broken the BJP in his first term and he was hoping for a repeat. A move was initiated to instigate a dalit-adivasi-backward rebellion against the nomination of Raman Singh for the CM’s post. A letter from the Congress legislature party was promptly forwarded to the Governor promising support to the would-be breakaway faction of the BJP legislature party and money had also reportedly started changing hands to do the needful. But for once it was Jogi who got duped, the split was just not there and with Jogi’s unsolicited offers becoming public the Congress central leadership had no other option but to disown and dump Jogi.

As far as the Congress is concerned, the usual explanation for the December debacle revolves around that fashionable phrase that has now become the stock refuge of every non-performing government: anti-incumbency. The electorate’s obvious anger against the non-performance and anti-people policies of a government has come to be described these days in almost psycho-political terms, as an electoral habit to vote against the prevailing regime. But a government generally gets voted out because of a 3-5% negative swing, and the question remains why the electoral behaviour of only such a small segment should be affected by the anti-incumbency mood. The real issue is not incumbency or anti-incumbency, but the basic long-term grammar of socio-political polarization in a region coupled with the short-term pulls operating in the context of the policies, performance and politcs of a regime.

And it is on this score that the Congress governments of M.P. and Chhattisgarh exposed their true worth. The Digvijay Singh government of Madhya Pradesh was widely advertised to be a champion of democratic decentralization and dalit empowerment. But with elections approaching and the BJP pressing Uma Bharti into service, Digvijay Singh forgot all his developmental proclamations and began to project himself as a ‘truer’ Hindu leader than Uma Bharti. Ban on cow-slaughter became his top priority and the Congress thought it could pin down Uma Bharti on the issue of her offering a cake to Hanuman to celebrate the latter’s birthday! Ironically enough, while Digvijay Singh went on a desperate temple-hopping mission offering prayers and holding yajnas, the BJP harped religiously on the BSP (bijli-sadak-paani, i.e., power, roads and water) theme. Power shortage, water crisis and potholed roads became the focal point of the BJP’s election campaign.

In Chhattisgarh, the RSS campaign against Jogi had revolved around his corrupt and fraudulent record and the issue of religious conversion. Dilip Singh Judev was the hero of the RSS-led forcible reconversion or ‘ghar vapsi’ campaign. The Congress lacked the courage to confront the RSS on this basic issue, and when Jogi tried to make a Bangaru of Judev by catching him red-handed in a sting operation, the whole thing boomeranged on the Congress. It is the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh which voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.

The Congress has a long history of ideological bankruptcy vis-a-vis the RSS. At crucial junctures, the Congress has legitimized the RSS and walked straight into its communal trap. The twin blunders committed by the Rajiv Gandhi government on the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano cases had set the stage for the BJP’s dramatic rise in the late 1980s and then Narsimha Rao committed political hara-kiri by allowing the saffron brigade to demolish the Babri Masjid. Since then we have witnessed the Vaghela experiment in Gujarat and now the Digvijay model in M.P. with predictably disastrous consequences for the Congress.

As far as the BJP is concerned, it is trying to emerge as the number one representative party of the Indian ruling classes. Its leaders therefore constantly talk about a transition from a party of militant Hindutva to a party of governance. The party began this transition by first projecting two faces – the Advani face to represent the party organisation and the ideology of militant Hindutva and the Vajpayee face to project the banner of the alliance and the agenda of governance. Now increasingly the party is pushing its Hindutva mascots into key positions of power. A special post of Deputy Prime Minister has been created for Advani and the CBI has been effectively manipulated to secure legal reprieve for him in the conspiracy case surrounding the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Likewise, Narendra Modi has been enabled to win a second term as Gujarat Chief Minister and now Uma Bharti has been anointed as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.

While the media focus all attention on the Pramod Mahajans and Arun Jaitleys and their corporate style management of election campaigns, let us not lose sight of this more substantial aspect of the BJP’s emerging face. In the saffron scheme of things, the votaries of militant Hindutva and the architects of a rabid rightward shift work in tandem. It is sheer political naivete to read any rift between the Arun Jaitleys and the Uma Bhartis, between the ‘BSP’ agenda and the so-called taboo issues of the NDA.

All talk of the BJP now finally committing itself to an economic agenda in place of the emotive issues of Hindutva is nothing but wishful thinking. Having won the elections harping on the Bijli-Sadak-Paani theme, the new chief ministers have already started articulating their real agenda. Uma Bharti is busy discussing a possible ban on cow slaughter while for Raman Singh the priorities are crusades against religious conversion and Naxalism.

It is also important to closely examine the new developmental discourse that is being declared as the new winning agenda for elections. Whether in M.P. or in Delhi, it is ‘development’ which, the media never tire of telling us, has won the elections. If in M.P., the parameters of development are bijli, sadak and paani, in Delhi we have flyovers, metro rail and CNG buses as the symbolic shorthand for development. Conspicuously absent are the concerns of the rural and urban poor like jobs, prices, social security and basic amenities like education, sanitation, healthcare and housing. Foreign multinationals have already sized up India’s middle- and upper-middle class consumer market. They now see their biggest profit being generated in the infrastructural sector with the government playing the role of a captive consumer. Let us not forget that privatisation of power and roadways and commercialisation of drinking water figure on top of the World Bank-WTO agenda for a country like India. The same neo-liberal economics that has been systematically ruining the country’s industry and agriculture and has trapped the entire economy in a trajectory of jobless growth is now being sought to be legitimized in the name of infrastructural development.

In a two-party scenario, one party may often win by default simply by cashing in on the people’s anger and disillusionment with the other. With no consolidated presence of a third force in states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it is obvious that in the short run the Congress’s losses will be the BJP’s gains in this two-party terrain. But no serious political observer can overlook the fact that in recent years it is the BJP that has tended to replace the Congress more often than vice versa. It is the BJP which now increasingly defines the dominant trend in India’s rightwing politics with the Congress suffering from a growing identity crisis.

In fact, if recent electoral trends in India’s long tribal belt stretching from Gujarat and Rajasthan through Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to Orissa and Jharkhand are any indication, for the first time the BJP seems to be making major systematic inroads into a new social soil. The disenchantment of dalits and adivasis with the Congress seems to be complete and the BJP is making rapid forays on this ground. While the BJP’s attempt to appropriate the dalit base faces serious challenges from the Left and from formations like the BSP, its penetration of the tribal belt seems to be facing little challenge from within. The BJP today is gaining not just from political alliance-building or opportunist marriages of convenience with power-seeking regional or small parties, it is also able to forge and hold a long-term social coalition under its political-ideological umbrella. This is the social subtext to the BJP’s attempt to emerge as India’s ‘natural’ or number one party of governance. In a parliamentary democracy assured class support has to be backed by adequate loyalty of the masses; in fact, the former is predicated on the latter. It is the disintegration of the old Congress social base which has tilted the Indian ruling classes increasingly in favour of the BJP.

If the Left and other anti-BJP forces want to thwart the BJP’s dream transition to the status of India’s dominant ruling party, they have to stop the BJP from making further inroads into the old Congress turf. The RSS work in tribal belts has to be exposed and confronted on a solid and sustained basis – the bogey of conversion can and must be exploded through systematic tribal mobilization on a democratic agenda comprising basic issues like land alienation, displacement and mass evictions, rights over land, forests and sources of water, rehabilitation, employment, guaranteed access to basic amenities and the like.

The standard Left prescription for checking the BJP’s advance has always revolved around the tactic of so-called united front from above. Ever since the BJP has been identified as the principal political enemy, the united front formula has come to be expressed in terms of a Congress-centric broad secular front. But ironically, while the opportunist Left liberalises its attitude towards the Congress and readies itself for all kinds of political and electoral adjustment with the Congress, the latter continues to lose ground in state after state. And the more the Left rallies behind the Congress, the more it becomes incapable of addressing, let alone filling, the social and political space vacated by the Congress.

As far as non-BJP non-Congress forces are concerned, election results have indicated a growing space for them as well. In terms of both number of seats and vote share there has been a marginal improvement in the strength of the third forces with both the SP and the BSP claiming the maximum gains. On the Left, the CPI(M) too managed to win one seat each in Rajasthan and M.P. Clearly, the Left tactics in the present situation must be defined in terms of enhanced emphasis on independent mobilization of the rural poor, especially dalits and adivasis, and renewed stress on developing cooperation among Left and democratic forces in contrast to the suicidal course of toeing a pro-Congress line.