Next month’s polls will lead to Manmohan-Advani face-off(Comment)

October 18th, 2008 - 10:09 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyThe next round of assembly elections in five states, and also possibly in Jammu and Kashmir, will be of high importance for all the political parties for they will set the tone for next year’s general election.Whichever of the two major protagonists - the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - emerges victorious in most of the states will have the advantage of stitching up the alliance led by it. The loser, on the other hand, may find that some of its allies and would-be allies are drifting away from it.

Since the general election will be a contest between two major formations - the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led respectively by the Congress and the BJP - the outcome of the assembly polls will give some idea as to which of them has a better chance in next year’s nationwide contest.

But even more than the prospects of the UPA and the NDA, the battle of 2009 may also come to be seen as one between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the BJP’s prime minister-in-waiting, L.K. Advani. In fact, this will be the first time in Indian politics that the electorate will see a virtual presidential-style confrontation between two individuals in addition to the routine contest between the two major parties.

While the general election will see a direct fight between the UPA and the NDA, the assembly polls, which are being billed as the semi-finals, will be mainly a head-to-head tussle between the Congress and the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi. In Jammu, the BJP would like to see (if the elections are held) whether the recent Amarnath controversy has bolstered its position.

However, in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the BJP’s fear is the incumbency factor as it has been in power for the last five years with nothing much to show for it. But to what extent the Congress will be able to exploit any popular disaffection is open to question because the party does not seem to be too energetic at the moment in any of these states.

Nothing shows its lethargy more than the fact that it has failed to implement its own advice to finalise the party’s list of candidates at least 45 days before the elections. This recommendation was made by the A.K. Antony Committee after the Congress’ defeat in a string of elections, including Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Gujarat, but it was apparently quickly forgotten.

One reason why the Congress has always found it difficult to finalise the lists is the conflicting demands of its factional leaders. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has a fair number of them - Arjun Singh, Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia - all of whom often work at cross purposes.

In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, however, it doesn’t have any such heavyweights. Neither Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh nor Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan answer to this description. The Congress has to depend almost solely, therefore, on the incumbency factor to unseat the BJP.

The Congress also faces the same factor in Delhi. But its hope apparently is that Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s frenetic efforts to turn the national capital into a world class city, as she says, before the 2010 Commonwealth Games will bear fruit. The ceaseless construction activity that has enveloped all of Delhi is something which was last seen (though on a smaller scale) before the Asian Games of 1982.

What is noteworthy, however, is that even in the assembly polls, much of the campaigning will be on issues that will dominate the general election later, namely, terrorism, inflation, the nuclear deal, anti-Christian violence et al.

Where the Congress is concerned, the last two may well prove to be its main talking points even as the party hopes that the prices will show a downward trend. Following the anti-Christian outbreaks in Orissa, Karnataka and elsewhere, the Congress will probably expect a consolidation of Christian votes behind it. But this may not apply to the Muslims in view of the feeling that the terrorist attacks have led to a targeting of Muslim localities by the police, breeding frustration and anger among the insecure residents.

Although the Congress has stoutly resisted pressure from the BJP to enact a stringent law on the lines of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was open to abuse, especially in the BJP-ruled states, this show of restraint does not seem to have won it any admirers among the Muslims. At the same time, the Congress’ attitude has enabled the BJP to accuse it of being soft on terror.

However, the BJP’s hopes of deriving electoral mileage from terrorism have been undercut to a considerable extent by the attack on Christians and the burning of churches in which the BJP’s fraternal organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal have been implicated.

What is more, their violence has been tacitly endorsed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which is the head of the saffron brotherhood, including the BJP, on the grounds that it was an expression of “Hindu anger”. Similar views have also been aired by the BJP’s president, Rajnath Singh.

Whatever impact the campaigning on these points makes on the electorate, the Congress will have to watch out for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which may well play the spoiler in these elections by taking away the Dalit votes from it. Similarly, the BJP may face some difficulty from its former firebrand leader, Uma Bharati, who has pockets of influence in Madhya Pradesh.

Given these swirling political currents, there is little doubt that the semi-finals will be a riveting affair, leading up to an enthralling final.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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