Sunday, May 16, 2004

Elections 2004 - What happened and why?

Is the current result a verdict against the ruling NDA's policies?

The elections for the 14th Parliament are over. BJP led NDA coalition has been handed an unexpected defeat. None of the multitude of opinion polls and exit polls gave any indication of the final result. However there seems to have been enough indications as to why this outcome would have happened anyway.

It was not just Congress (I) making efficient and powerful alliances in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, but also BJP burning bridges with friends everywhere and making costly errors in its electoral arithmetic. BJP had cobbled together a working majority in the 13th Parliament through shrewd political alignments. But its state units did all they can to destroy several relationships over this period.

In Tamil Nadu, BJP's mistake in not supporting and helping MDMK's Vaiko eventually caused a complete rout there. In 1998, AIADMK allowed BJP to settle in Tamil Nadu by forging a grand alliance which also included MDMK and PMK. When Jayalalithaa pulled out of the ruling coalition and caused Vajpayee government to fall, DMK became the natural ally. The grand alliance once again involved MDMK and PMK on the side of the BJP. It is the presence of MDMK and PMK that brings in an additional 11% of vote bank. However during the current elections, BJP was on the wrong side of MDMK and PMK. Jayalalithaa, once in control of state power had misused POTA and put MDMK's leader Vaiko in jail. Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP did not come to Vaiko's rescue and let things slide. BJP, after a gap of two years, tried to water down POTA by introducing a panel headed by Justice Arun Saharya to examine whether POTA cases were misused to settle political vendetta. It was too obvious for everyone that Vaiko was put in prison on flimsiest of charges. However by not acting decisively and even going around making statements that arrest of Vaiko was not misuse of POTA, BJP completely lost the trust of Vaiko and MDMK.

As if, being anti-MDMK was not enough, BJP's state unit leaders continued to praise Jayalalithaa for her anti-conversion bill and 'free meal' schemes in temples. Normally, there would be nothing wrong in praising someone in the opposition, especially if they implement ideas close to one's own heart. But Tamil Nadu politics is based on personal enemity between DMK and AIADMK party leaders. DMK chief Karunanidhi certainly did not like Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP. When Jayalalithaa implemented the mid-night arrest of Karunanidhi on flimsiest of the reasons, the BJP Government and the state BJP unit did not show their displeasure enough in supporting their key alliance partner. It was only the presence of Murasoli Maran that helped in retaining the rather strained relationship between the two parties. Once Maran died, it did not take much time for Karunanidhi to snap the ties with BJP. The coming Tamil Nadu assembly elections in 2006 and considerable muslim votes in Tamil Nadu was also one of the reasons for the break-up in the ties..

As dominant political parties, DMK and AIADMK decide to side with either BJP or Congress (I) based on their own compulsions of whether such an alliance will help them capture power in Tamil Nadu. But with the level of strained relationship between MDMK and AIADMK on one hand and the not-so-happy relationship between BJP and MDMK, it was inevitable for MDMK also to walk out to the DMK camp.

PMK as a political party does not have any set agenda, except to further the interests of a powerful caste group in Northern Tamil Nadu. As such, it will make alliances with any party which will promise more goodies. While PMK was part of the DMK coalition in 1999 in fighting the parliamentary election, in the 2001 assembly election, it was part of the AIADMK coalition. But after the election, snubbed by Jayalalithaa, PMK went back to the BJP/DMK alliance and took part in the ministry at the centre as well. Even though DMK and MDMK together were formidable, PMK on the side of AIADMK and BJP could have helped them from escaping the rout. But instead, AIADMK was not interested in forging alliance with anyone. In fact, it seems, AIADMK was not even interested in joining with BJP. It was BJP that required the support of AIADMK. AIADMK allocated unwinnable seats to BJP and also meddled endlessly in even the candidate selection process of BJP.

AIADMK also had become extremely unpopular with its anti-press attitude, anti-farmer, anti- government worker etc. Thus, AIADMK+BJP combine was all set to lose the elections in Tamil Nadu well before the voting took place. This gave the Congress (I) coalition the entire state. DMK chief Karunanishi also was magnanimous in forming the coalition, and gave the minor partners Congress (I), PMK, MDMK, the communists and the Muslim League lion's share of 25 out of 40 seats, while retaining just 15 seats for himself.

In Andhra Pradesh, BJP had no go except to be part of TDP coalition. TDP had become unpopular after a 9 year rule and the coalition was booted out in both the assembly and the parliamentary election held simultaneously. Congress (I) had forged a strong alliance with Telengana Rashtra Samithi and the left parties nd won a landslide victory.

BJP also broke with its alliance partner Indian National Lok Dal led by Om Prakash Chautala. The result was a three-cornered contest and Congress (I) walked all over the opposition. In Assam also, AGP wanted to badly have an alliance with BJP. But the local BJP leaders felt they could win Assam all on their own. The result again was in favour of Congress (I).

In Bihar and Jharkand, Congress (I) and Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad Yadav forged a very strong alliance and handed a heavy defeat to BJP and Janata Dal (U). Infighting in an already weakened Janata Dal (U) didn't help BJP much. In Maharashtra NCP and Congress (I) fought the elections together, despite differences over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin issue. After all, the two are the partners in the coalition government in Maharashtra, and the coalition could overcome the challenge from BJp-Shiv Sena combine.

In Uttar Pradesh, it was a four cornered contest between Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati, BJP and Congress (I). Had Congress (I) forged an alliance with SP, BJP would have been in deeper soup.

Thus, sensible electoral alliance by Congress (I) and very poor mathematics from BJP ensured that BJP coalition could not reach the position they had in the 13th Parliament.

The current result should not therefore be seen as a verdict against the policies of the current government as most anti-BJP commentators have pointed out.

Once Congress (I) came down from its lofty pedestal and decided to go in for alliances, BJP's position automatically weakened. Now, BJP has a lot of work to do over the next five years if it wants to regain power at the centre. Sure, it has to shed its agenda of hate politics championed by the Narendra Modis. But it needs to do much more than that. Just as Congress (I) succeeded in bringing all the anti-BJP forces together, BJP will need to strengthen its relationship with all the anti- Congress (I) parties. It is a natural platform for all anti-BJP parties to come together claiming secularism. What will BJP bring in as a slogan for bringing all the anti- Congress (I) forces to come together?

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