Turbulence ahead as regional forces gain

The UP poll results show that no party or leader can come to power by wooing a single caste, ethnic or religious constituency

Conventional wisdom has it that state elections are usually fought over local issues and are not affected by matters of nationwide concern. This might no longer hold good if the results of the latest Assembly polls are anything to go by. The big picture that immediately emerges, and one that nobody has missed, is the rebuff that the Congress Party has received from the majority of Indian voters spread across the length and breadth of the country. And it cannot merely be due to local issues.

The Congress has been almost rendered irrelevant in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest and most politically important state; it has been shunted out of office in Goa; it has been beaten in Punjab despite the anti-incumbency factor; has barely made electoral headway in Uttarakhand; and has done well only in remote Manipur in the Northeast, where the shadow of New Delhi’s politics has traditionally been weak.
Had local issues been the principal concern then the Congress should have done better in most of the states given that anti-incumbency has become decisive in recent times. In Punjab, the Congress should have replaced the government run not too well by a coalition made up of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Uttarakhand too it should have trounced the BJP most decisively and done significantly better in Uttar Pradesh, which has been ruled indifferently by non-Congress governments for years.
But nothing like that happened and the Congress has only itself to blame. The ruling United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress has been facing a huge trust deficit for some time now for a variety of reasons, including its failure to curb corruption in high places. High levels of inflation, the perceived arrogance of UPA leaders, resistance to systemic change and a complete disregard of public sentiments by the ruling coalition have been bothering citizens, who have been left feeling powerless and neglected. This cannot but have had a massive impact on voting behaviour.
The positive electoral trends for the Congress Party exhibited during the 2009 parliamentary polls appear to have been reversed. It should be recalled that in 2009 the party had secured one of Goa’s two Lok Sabha seats, bagged both seats in Manipur, won eight out of 13 Punjab seats, won all five Uttarakhand seats and wrested 21 of the 80 Uttar Pradesh seats. The Congress’ performance in Uttar Pradesh was impressive given that it had wrested more seats than the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Another significant aspect of the elections is Ms Mayawati’s complete rout in Uttar Pradesh. When the counting started it was clear that a silent electoral storm had swept the state, trampling the BSP and thrusting the Samajwadi Party and its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to victory.
It was a quiet revolution of the ballot in Uttar Pradesh; a harsh verdict against Ms Mayawati, who had ruled the state for five years, erecting grandiose statues of herself and other dalit figures and condoning corruption in her ministry. To be fair, she had also done much good, having improved law and order, initiated a host of development schemes and implemented a slew of welfare programmes for the poorest of the poor.
What brought her down was hubris, her utter disregard for those contributing to her power and failing to address the concerns of social groups other than her core dalit constituency. The Muslims and upper caste groups, who are believed to have supported her in the 2007 Assembly polls, are reported to have deserted her in droves this time. She is also said to have alienated many around her by her unrestrained arrogance.
If the Uttar Pradesh poll results hold any lesson for the future, it is that no party or leader can expect to come to power by wooing a single caste, ethnic or religious constituency. Electoral success can only come about if a plurality of interests is addressed. Clearly, a large section of the Uttar Pradesh electorate that had been left cold by Ms Mayawati’s governance voted silently and massively against her.
If the Congress and the BSP leadership lacked something vital, it was humility. They came, they toured and they lectured like avatars descending among mere mortals. The voters listened, endured and quietly voted against them.
The resultant electoral verdict has left quite a political mess. For one, the credibility as well as the stability of the UPA-2 government at the Centre will now be under severe strain. The leadership of the Congress Party too would have been weakened though the rank and file of a confused and dispirited party will not protest too much for now.
The BJP will be elated by the Congress’ failure but secretly worried about the fact that it too seems to be on the decline and has clung on to power in Punjab and won in Goa only because of powerful regional allies.
The Congress Party is increasingly going to be faced with a dilemma: reform and be damned, or don’t reform, stagnate and be damned. The problem is that regional leaders, always fearful of their powers being eroded by a domineering government at the Centre, could resist reforms and change even more vigorously than before. They could also be tempted to extract more concessions at the cost of the Centre. And should the UPA government fail to perform in the months ahead, it might well perish in the next general election.
The Congress’ loss would most certainly be the gain of powerful regional leaders; some of them are already talking about a conglomerate to challenge the existing dispensation at the Centre. The latest state poll results could well portend the beginning of more turbulent times.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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