Saturday, December 22, 2012

Assembly Elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh: Hat-Trick for Modi, Congress Returns to Power in Shimla

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a third consecutive win in the state Assembly elections. The resounding victory of the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly election is an endorsement by the people of the politics of development and a rejection of the politics of hate. Modi has recorded a personal achievement by leading the BJP to a third straight victory in the just-held Assembly polls. There are very few examples of this nature in the country.

BJP captured 115 seats in the 182-member House, short by two seats from his 2007 performance of 117 seats. Surprisingly, the state presidents of both the Congress and the BJP were defeated.
While it was a hat-trick for Modi, a record by any chief minister in the state so far, for the BJP it was the fifth straight win since 1995. The Congress which again failed to dislodge the BJP, ended with 61 seats along with its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, two better than 59 it won in the last elections.

The Gujarat Parivartan Party floated by former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel with the support of the disgruntled elements of the BJP to show Modi the “exit door,” ended up a cropper with only two seats, with Patel winning from Visavadar in Junagadh district in the Saurashtra region. Four seats went to Independents and others. In a tactical move, soon after the results were declared, Modi called on Patel at his Gandhinagar residence and sought blessing of the 84-year-old erstwhile stalwart of the BJP.

Modi retained his Maninagar seat in Ahmedabad city by a comfortable margin of over 86,000 votes, though a few hundred less than last time, while the Congress suffered serious setbacks with its state unit president Arjun Modhvadia and Leader of the Opposition in the outgoing state Assembly, Shaktisingh Gohil, losing the elections.

Keeping Gujarat’s results in view, one issue that will be hotly debated in the days to come is: Will Modi be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014? The decisive win has certainly strengthened his case, though he himself is silent about it and the BJP too refuses to squarely face the issue.

As for the Congress, since Madhavsinh Solanki’s 148-seat victory in 1985, the party has not been returned to power in Gujarat. So disappointment, if any, was expected. The Congress has been saved from utter humiliation by a surprise win in Himachal Pradesh, where opinion polls had predicted a close contest. The drubbing it had got in the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab assembly elections had so unnerved the national leadership that it did not risk testing a new, younger leader in Himachal and chose to rely on the old warhorse, Virbhadra Singh, to lead the battle.

The fact that the BJP has not just secured an impressive victory but even won a record number of Assembly constituencies in Gujarat that have a high Muslim population, should silence critics of Modi who have been claiming that he does not enjoy the support and confidence of the minority community post-2002 violence. Of the nine Assembly seats which have a Muslim population of more than 25 per cent, the BJP has won seven. These wins have come with a vote share ranging from 45 per cent to 59 per cent. The constituencies include Bapunagar with a relatively low 28 per cent Muslim population and Jamalpur-Khadia which has a high of 60 per cent of the minorities.

Although the Congress, scared as it was after the 2007 experience, did not once raise the issue of the 2002 violence or the ‘persecution' of the minorities by the Modi-led Government, the fact remains that its workers had continued to spread venom against the chief minister throughout the election campaign at the grassroots level. But the results seem to suggest that even that strategy of the Congress has failed. The BJP has managed to make significant inroads into the minority votes as well, and which clearly indicates that the Muslims of the State are by and large disgusted by the hate propaganda unleashed by Modi's critics. They are willing to leave the past behind and move forward.

Himachal Pradesh
In Himachal Pradesh, where the polls were held along with Gujarat, the Congress Party has registered an impressive victory, displacing the ruling BJP although Modi, a Hindutva mascot these days, was the star campaigner sent in precisely to rally the faithful and convert the undecided. The Congress bounced back to power in the hill state winning 36 out of the total 68 seats, while the ruling BJP had to contend with 26. As expected, the Independents put up a good show to bag five seats. The BJP breakaway group Himachal Lokhit Party, which had floated the Third Front with the CPM and the CPI, could just muster a solitary seat.

The Congress, which had 23 members in the outgoing House, improved its tally by 13 seats, while the BJP’s score came down to 26 from 41. The margin of victory was not very big but it was a creditable performance by the Congress keeping in view the prevailing anti-party sentiment at the national level due to unfolding of various scams and measures.

From 1990, electors in Himachal Pradesh have voted out the incumbent in each election, replacing the BJP with the Congress and the Congress with the BJP. 2012 happens to be the turn of the Congress. Although the Congress campaign was managed by Virbhadra Singh, who is caught in a web of corruption charges, the overriding concern of the people seems to have been to vote out the Prem Kumar Dhumal government. After a full term in power, the BJP carried out a negative campaign trying to blame the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre for all the miseries of the commoners. While attacking the Centre for the diesel price hike, and the cap on LPG cylinders for domestic use, Dhumal had little to show in terms of his own achievements.

The political aware electorate maintained the three-decade old tradition of voting out the incumbent government and gave a clear verdict in favor of the Congress throwing aside all the predictions of a hung House. The strong anti-incumbency factor against the Dhumal government more than neutralized the impact of national issues such as price rise, corruption and FDI on which the BJP was banking on.

It has been seen over and over again in the past decade that the Congress Party places undue reliance on the strength of its policies to get past hurdles, downplaying other aspects of mass-level politics, and almost blanks them out. This is a path which is full of risks. This is specially so when the Congress is in power, and influential personalities in states cease to count, the emergence of strong regional leaders is not encouraged, and those that exist are sought to be laid low or brought on par with hangers-on of what has come to be known as the “Delhi durbar”.

In fact, it is plain to all that it is Virbhadra Singh who has single-handedly pulled the Congress’ chestnuts out of the fire in Himachal Pradesh and handed it a comfortable victory in the Assembly election. And yet half a dozen names of little consequence in the state party are being touted as possible contenders for the chief ministership through the media. Exactly this had happened when Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit won the Assembly election for the party for the third consecutive time. An air of needless suspense was permitted to cloud the mood of celebration among the rank and file.

National issues did not figure in the two state elections. For much of its term UPA-II had distinguished itself by non-performance. September onwards it resumed governance. If corruption charges, inflation, diesel price hike and a cap on gas cylinders were to weigh on voters’ mind, then the Congress would have lost in Himachal too. The voters in the hill state did not care about graft charges against the UPA or Virbhadra Singh. Despite a late start, 77-year-old Virbhadra Singh has worked hard for the win, and reached out to dissidents, including Vijay Mankotia. Being from the state’s upper region has helped him.

The election results in these two states have brought down the BJP’s tally of controlling state governments by one and increased the Congress’ tally by the same number. A contest of a similar nature will take place between the two parties in Karnataka — where the BJP has been thrown on the back foot with former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, a name to reckon with in the state, forming his own party after leading a rebellion within the BJP — and Chhattisgarh in 2013. These, along with the recent Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal, are likely to have a bearing on the framing of national politics ahead of the next Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament) elections due in May 2014.

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