Congress on Back Foot

The forthcoming assembly elections to the four states in the Hindi heartland could well be the curtain raiser for the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and determine the future course of action of the BJP and its poster boy Narendra Modi.

For BJP, the challenge is immense. The four states going to polls should be regarded as saffron strongholds; the party runs the MP and Chhattisgarh governments and was beaten by a whisker in Rajasthan by the Congress in the 2008 assembly elections.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the Delhi assembly, even though small in size, has a cascading effect on results elsewhere in the country. Given that the BJP remains a largely north Indian party, the results of assemblies which between them control 73 Lok Sabha seats going to polls in a few weeks time, cannot be underestimated.

Sensing that corruption and rampaging inflation could boost anti-incumbency against the Congress, the RSS is going all out to end groupism in the BJP so that the party is in a position to contest polls as a united entity. It has overridden objections raised by LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj to the projection of Modi as its prime ministerial candidate; it therefore follows that adverse assembly results could also be placed at the doors of the Gujarat strongman, who is campaigning furiously in the poll-bound states.

Experts believe that Modi’s well attended rallies could have an impact on the outcome. Says analyst Suvrokamal Dutta: ‘‘The vast rallies that Modi is addressing have given a leg up to the party cadres who believe that he is a genuine alternative to the Congress. The Gujarat chief minister has managed to establish a feel-good connect with the youth and women. The point to see is how much it adds to the BJP vote bank.’’

There is little doubt that if the crowds turning up at Modi’s meetings translate into votes, BJP will be laughing all the way to the bank. According to BJP Kisan Morcha national vice-president Naresh Sirohi, there is more common public than BJP workers at Modi’s rallies. ‘‘The UPA government’s policies have hit the farmers the most. Their lands have been taken away, they have not been given adequate compensation and minimum support prices (MSP) have not been awarded. Farmers have been kept out of the ambit of the Food Security Act. Under the circumstances, there is great anger against the Congress and three out of the four states going to polls – Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan – are agriculture-based and will vote heavily for the BJP,’’ he claims.

In Delhi, despite a small assembly size, the results are considered significant because the national capital has voters from all parts of the country and its outcome has a significant bearing on polls elsewhere. The 70-seat assembly has traditionally supported either the Congress or the BJP. This time around, there is a difference. The two are facing a strong challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its president Arvind Kejriwal. If that is going to be tough, the two have to also contend with the SP, BSP and JD (U) who are all set to eat into their traditional vote banks.

vasundhara-cs-2In such a tight scenario, even a one or two percent vote swing could mean the difference between victory and defeat. A look at the Delhi assembly results are telling. In the 2008 assembly polls, the Congress won 40.31 percent of the total votes and 43 seats while the BJP which garnered 36.43 percent votes managed only 23. While the voting percentage difference between the two leading parties was four percent, the difference in seats won was in direct contrast.

An increase in the vote percentage of any of these smaller parties could spoil the party for the big two in Delhi. The SP and JD (U) are eyeing the 15 percent Muslim and 40 percent Purabiya – read UP and Bihar – voters, both traditional Congress supporters. The BSP has already emerged as a third entity in Delhi when it won 15.50 percent of popular votes in 2008 and two assembly seats.

But the biggest spoiler this time is estimated to the AAP, who is expected to garner a fair share of the educated, urban Delhi voter. Arvind Kejriwal, the anti-corruption activist who has made quite a name for himself because of his integrity and simple ways, is attracting the urban voters which pose a direct threat to the established parties.

Keeping this in mind, the BJP has nominated Harshvardan, a practicing medic and former head of the Delhi BJP, as its chief ministerial aspirant overlooking the claims of Vijay Goel, a man who was getting increasingly unpopular as polls approached.

According to BJP estimates, the nomination of Harshvardhan poses a threat to the AAP, which looked like running away with the BJP vote bank of urban literates as long as Vijay Goel was in charge. Now, they say, things are changing for the better. The new BJP mascot was health minister in a former BJP government and is credited with playing a major role in the polio eradication programme. ‘‘Harshvardhan has a clean image and potential voters moving away from the BJP are now bound to come back to us. He poses the most serious threat to the Arvind Kejriwal phenomenon,’’ says a BJP leader.

In Rajasthan, the BJP is sensing power. Insiders say that the RSS is more concerned about the state than even the BJP, particularly with the growing network of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The RSS believes that a BJP government in the state is now essential to counter the SIMI menace. Which is why it has fielded two veteran Sangh pracharaks, Captan Singh Solanki and Saudan Singh to oversee elections in the state.

It is generally believed that Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s loss in 2008 was largely a result of the disconnect between the BJP and RSS and her personal unpopularity with the more conservative elements of the Sangh leadership. But even in that situation, the BJP had managed to win 78 seats out of the 200 assembly seats as opposed to the Congress’s 96, the difference between the winner and loser about 2.5 percent of the total votes cast.

This time around, the RSS has worked overtime to bridge differences between Vasundhra Raje and veteran BJP leaders in the state so that party cadres rise up to the occasion. Her Suaraj Sankalp yatras had her Rajasthan rivals as participants, no mean achievement, given the bad blood between the two sides.

Two senior leaders, Jaswant Singh and Kailash Mekhwal, both opposed to Vasundhara with significant vote banks in the Rajput and Dalit communities respectively, eagerly backed Vasundhara. These are supposed to be good signs. But even BJP insiders admit that the fight between the two parties will go down to the wires, given Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s clean image and despite corruption and sexual exploitation cases registered against prominent state ministers in his cabinet.

cm-ccc_0-cs-3Along with Modi, both Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and his MP counterpart Shivraj Singh Chauhan, are regarded as development oriented – minus of course the Gujarat CM’s hype. While both are trying for a third term, the way ahead is not going to be too easy given the number of corruption cases against their colleagues and the strong anti-incumbency that the BJP faces after 10 years in office. The only thing going in their favour is the complete disarray in the Congress.

Experts believe that the Congress gambit of introducing Jyotiraditya Scindia as campaign in charge of MP could have worked if he had time on his side. ‘‘There are corruption charges against members of Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s cabinet and Scindia’s entry would have worked in Congress’s favour. Alas, it is too little and too late as the young Congressman may not have the time needed to turn things around,’’ points out Suvrokamal Dutta.

While Shivraj Singh’s own personal popularity is intact, there is anger against his ministers and corruption charges leveled against some BJP MLAs. During Chauhan’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra, slogans were raised against the party and some of his MLAs leading to suggestions that old faces be dropped and new people be given party tickets. But that presents another set of problems – infighting and sabotage. Hence Chauhan has given this onerous responsibility to the RSS to sort out matters; it helps him to save face and pass the buck on the RSS should things go out of control.

In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh faces a similar predicament – charges of corruption against members of his government and the anger of the RSS cadres at his inability to reign in the bureaucracy that has refused to oblige the party on unreasonable requests.

Harsh-Vardhan-cs-4If that was not bad enough, the Chhattisgarh unit of the party is faction-driven. These divisions within the BJP led to the resignation of former minister Karuna Shukla who had good control over the Brahman vote bank, which could take its toll on the party. In the 90-seat Chhattisgarh assembly, the fight between the Congress and the BJP in the last elections was touch and go with a total vote difference of 1.7 percent. While the BJP got 50 seats, the Congress had to settle for 38. In an effort to win some of the lost ground, warhorse Ajit Jogi has been introduced into the proceedings to cut the ground from under the BJP’s feet.

On balance, the biggest threat to the BJP in all the four states comes from its rebels. Vasundhara’s Suaraj Sankalp Yatra, Shivraj’s Jan Aashirvad Yatra and Raman Singh’s Vikas Yatra have whetted the appetites of local leaders who successfully ran their respective chief ministers’ campaigns. Most of them, first timers, are keen to contest on a BJP ticket, given survey reports by several challens and publications which are giving top numbers to the saffron party. But obviously, everyone cannot be accomodated.

BJP fears are rooted in the fact that if some of those who had organized these campaigns are denied party tickets, they are quite capable of contesting as independents. If that were to happen, it would be bad news for the Sangh brotherhood.