Poll outcome: the BJP loses its terror plank (News Analysis)

December 9th, 2008 - 2:16 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyNew Delhi, Dec 9 (IANS) Prima facie, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not fare too badly in the recent elections in north and central India. It beat the anti-incumbency factor in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to retain power and its vote share in Rajasthan, where it lost, was marginally less than the Congress’.Yet, if there was a sense of doom and gloom in the party office in New Delhi, the reason was that it had realised that it had lost what the party considered its most effective electoral card - terrorism. It was on this emotive plank that the BJP had successfully based its campaigns in recent years by accusing the Congress of being soft on terror and, therefore, unmindful of national interests because of its concern for the Muslim vote.

At one stroke, therefore, by tarring the Congress with the anti-national tag and simultaneously whipping up popular sentiments against the minorities, the BJP was expecting to regain power at the centre in the next general election. Its hope was based on its string of successes in state assembly elections in the recent past in Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka.

Now, suddenly, all its fond wishes have turned sour. If its anti-terror platform had worked, then the Congress could not have won such a sweeping victory in Delhi immediately after the most horrendous of all terrorist outrages in Mumbai, which has been described as India’s 9/11. Nor could it have ousted the BJP in Rajasthan.

It is the Congress’ success in the cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile Delhi as well as in the largely feudal and tradition-bound Rajasthan, which showed that the BJP’s propaganda had no impact in these two widely varying locations.

Ironically, it was the horrific nature of the terrorist attack in Mumbai which seems to have convinced the voters that religious extremism was too serious and traumatic a matter for exploitation by cynical politicians.

What the BJP has realised, therefore, that it is an issue which will be of little use to it in the next general election. Since the party has always banked on atavistic passions to garner votes, whether it is Ram temple or Ram Setu, the loss of what it considered an indispensable propaganda tool seems to have unnerved it.

Arguably, what the BJP’s over-ambitious leaders at the centre did not realise was sensed by its less flamboyant politicians like the two chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh - Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh, respectively - with their greater grassroots contacts.

They seem to have refrained from playing the Hindutva card and focussed instead on what has come to be known as the bijli-sadak-pani factor, signifying the government’s commitment to providing electricity and water and building roads. It is apparently by emphasising the need for development that Chauhan and Raman Singh have succeeded in evading the taint of incumbency.

The Congress also contributed in its own way to their success. In Madhya Pradesh, which is even more backward than Rajasthan, the Congress has more heavyweights in its ranks than what is good for the party. Among them are Arjun Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia - all ministers at the centre - and Digvijay Singh, a former chief minister. Among their claims to fame is that they rarely see eye to eye.

In Chhattisgarh, which was a part of Madhya Pradesh till the year 2000, the Congress’ chief ministerial candidate, Ajit Jogi, has been dogged by a controversy over his claims to be a tribal although he is known for his energetic campaigns despite being wheelchair-bound. The more sober Raman Singh, however, has built up a reputation for integrity and efficiency, which have evidently helped him in his victory.

Chauhan and Raman Singh seem to represent a new generation of BJP leaders, whose stints in power have moderated their approach to politics. They are vastly different from someone like the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Uma Bharati, the sexy sanyasin, whose advocacy of militant Hindutva from the time of the Ram temple agitation in the Nineties made her a storm petrel of the BJP. In fact, she was too mercurial to remain in the BJP and has now formed her own party.

In Rajasthan, the BJP has apparently been let down by factional leaders like former vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. They targeted chief minister Vasundhara Raje presumably because she is an “outsider”, being a member of the Madhya Pradesh-based Scindia family. Her feudal background also seems to have made her too elitist for the average party worker and ordinary people. The Congress’ Ashok Gehlot, on the other hand, has generally been known for his amiable ways.

With only about six months left before the general election, the BJP will be concerned not only about the loss of its terror plank, but also by the fact that its run of victories has come to an end with the turning of the tide. If the Manmohan Singh government can now compel Pakistan to act in right earnest to start dismantling the terrorist infrastructure, then the Congress will have gained a very effective campaign point just when the BJP has lost one.

Since the inflationary pressure is showing signs of easing and the economic slowdown has not affected India as badly as the developed countries, the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress are currently better placed to fight next year’s national elections than before.

(Amulya Ganguli can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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