Warning bells

If the United Democratic Front had won the Assembly election in Kerala a little more convincingly, a beleaguered Congress Party at the Centre would have been justified in projecting the results of the five state Assembly elections as a morale booster. Unfortunately for the harried Manmohan Singh government, that was not to be.

Mamata Banerjee won a historic victory against the Left Front. But that victory was exclusively her victory. With a resounding defeat in Tamil Nadu at the hands of a resurgent J. Jayalalithaa, the Congress was left with the small consolation of Tarun Gogoi’s enhanced verdict in Assam.
National politics has only a small bearing on election results in the states. Yet, their outcome has a profound bearing on the morale of national parties. Six months ago the Congress believed that a complete United Progressive Alliance (UPA) sweep in the five states would set the stage for a recovery at the Centre and put an end to the paralysis of governance. There was an expectation that a resounding mandate in the states would enable it to exorcise the ghost of corruption that has haunted it since August last year. The nail-biting finish in Kerala and the humiliation of the entire Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led alliance in Tamil Nadu has upset the applecart. Since corruption at the Centre was an important theme of the election in the two southern states, the Congress can hardly claim — as its outspoken member of Parliament Mani Shankar Aiyar did on TV — that the “gossip over corruption” has prevailed over more serious issues. Nor can it brush away the awkward fact that the spirited fightback by outgoing Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan was centred solely on his attack on the UPA government’s diminishing integrity quotient.
For the Congress, there was also the additional disquiet over Jagan Mohan Reddy’s triumph in the Cudappah byelection and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory in the three by-elections in Karnataka. It was Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala that gave the UPA its victory in the Lok Sabha election of 2009. In these states, and Karnataka, it is now on the backfoot. Going by present trends, southern India is going to pose a headache for the Congress.
In the short term, the cumulative national effect of the five Assembly elections doesn’t look too positive for the Congress despite the appearance of a 3-2 result. Since the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the BJP in particular had very little stake on May 13 (except, perhaps, in Assam), the relentless parliamentary assault on the 2G and Commonwealth Games scandals is certain to persist. The Congress may claim that it has been much more pro-active in taking action against those charged with corruption but this appearance of post-facto uprightness has been discounted by the electorate. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the Congress was crucial in tilting the balance in favour of the winner in all elections since 1977. On Friday, however, its representation was reduced to a single-digit and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won handsomely without having to take the Congress on board. The Congress leadership needs to reflect on this ominous marginalisation.
The grim news from the south will not necessarily destabilise the Manmohan Singh government. A much-weakened DMK is expected to fall in line and be less demanding of the Centre, not least because it needs the only crutch it has. But any possible action by the judiciary against family members of M. Karunanidhi could force it to become obstreperous and belligerently Tamil nationalist — a move that could add instability to the pre-existing problem of paralysis.
The only thing going for the Congress at this junction is the equal inability of the Opposition to get its larger political act together. The rout in West Bengal and the narrow defeat in Kerala is a grievous blow to the Left. In the months to come, the two Communist parties will be involved in theoretical navel-gazing. Given the vicious inner-party battles that are certain to ensue, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is unlikely to be the nodal point of any attempt to revive a Third Front. Nor are the regional parties likely to find the Communists a viable national ally.
Ideally, the state of play should have come as a godsend to the BJP in its bid to re-emerge as the alternative pole of national politics. However, it has absolutely no reason to cheer its own performance in the five state elections. For the BJP, these elections were an opportunity to demonstrate that it was capable of gaining a respectable vote share in non-traditional areas. This, in turn, would have presented the party as a viable national partner for regional parties.
The results have been a huge disappointment. Apart from once again failing to open its account in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, it saw a big truncation of its support base in Assam. True, the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad would have performed marginally better if they had entered into a pre-poll agreement. But even this lost opportunity can’t wish away a more awkward fact: that the BJP doesn’t have the necessary spread to challenge the Congress on its own terms. It not only needs the NDA but is dependent on terms set by the regional parties.
The weakness of the Left may be a reason for, say, Ms Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu to consider the BJP as a possible partner at the Centre. But, except in Orissa, they are not likely to do business because the BJP doesn’t have the ability to give them an incremental vote. They are likely to be more receptive to either a confederal arrangement or an NDA leader who is acceptable to all the partners. Unless the BJP can come up with a name that is not burdened by the tag of divisiveness, it is likely that the onus of leading a non-Congress alliance will fall on the shoulders of someone like Nitish Kumar.
Such a move would really send alarm bells ringing in the Congress.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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