Two questions uppermost in the political circuit in the wake of the assembly elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur are: Are the BJP and its allies on a comeback trail? Is it the beginning of the end for the UPA interregnum? The Congress is increasingly becoming an embarrassment even for its allies. The unimaginative, patently anti-aam aadmi budget presented by the Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has only reinforced this feeling.
It was interesting to watch the BJP and CPM leaders cornering the Congress leaders on the small screen, highlighting how the Finance Minister wasted yet another chance to reach out to the common man. And the persons the Congress fielded to tell its side of the budget said it all. Maharaja Jyotiraditya Scindia, Abhishek Singhvi, Kapil Sibal, Navin Jindal, Sachin Pilot and Miland Deora, known for their elitism and globalisation predilections, parroting the Chidambaram line on Sensex and GDP. That is a separate story.
In fact, the assembly election results were on expected lines. The BJP proved the biggest gainer. Its victory in Punjab is politically more significant. The party has succeeded in winning back its cadre base, the trust of the common nationalist voter. The support the BJP gained is an endorsement of its recent policy corrections. Top on its agenda were aggressive advocacy of the nationalist concern on internal and external security, opposition to sectarian and casteist appeasement by the UPA and commitment to good governance. The Congress has attributed the loss of its state governments to local factors and price rise. This is to miss the point. And a crude attempt to absolve the party president Sonia Gandhi of any responsibility for the drubbing it got. It was utterly amusing to see the way the Congress stalwarts from the Prime Minister to Ambika Soni and Amrinder Singh make light of the outcome. Till the end Singh refused to accept defeat. He refused to hail the victor saying the state will go back by 25 years. This was disgraceful. With a smirk and vane arrogance they defended their actions. Only the veteran N.D. Tiwari was sagacious enough to suggest that people were looking for change and better governance.
In Punjab, the Congress played the communal card. It tried to corner the Akalis by claiming that it gave the first Sikh Prime Minister and that it did so much for Punjab including unilateral subversion of the inter-state river water treaty. This was unbecoming of a national political party. Then it forced a religious edict from Dera Sacha Sauda, which according to press reports was forced on the sect threatening police action. All this could not reverse the final outcome. But the margin could be manipulated. This the Congress did in Uttarakhand also. The attempt was to ensure a hung assembly. Our sources in the state say that at least in about half a dozen constituencies, in the last stages of counting the trend got dramatically reversed. Throughout the day till the last result was out at 7 p.m. on February 27, the Doordarshan showed the BJP leading in 32 and the Congress in 23, with others leading in the remaining 14 seats. By around 3 p.m. all other channels had declared BJP the winner. At one time in the evening the BJP was leading in 40 seats. But on Doordarshan it was still leading only in 31 seats. In one constituency a Congress candidate was declared elected by 11 votes. In another there was a confusion on the name of BJP and Congress candidates. Both were named Gopal Singh. First the BJP man was declared elected. After some confusion, created by the Congress men, there was a retabultation, and the winner was, the Congress Gopal Singh. These are small time tricks the Congress has an expertise on. The BJP expected a more convincing win in Uttarakhand. The atmosphere was ripe for a landslide victory. The BJP had put in great efforts. And the central observer Ravi Shankar Prasad did an excellent job of organising and overseeing the campaign.
But the most outstanding performance was of Arun Jaitley in Punjab. His suave, articulate and dynamic presence electrified the party cadre. It is for the first time in BJP history that the party emerged as a formidable third force in the state. Its strike rate was 83 per cent, contesting 23 and winning 19. Many of the Akali urban seats were saved by the resurgent BJP. The party has proved the first choice of the urban Hindu voter. The credit in Punjab for this phenomenon goes richly to Arun Jaitley.
In contrast to the Congress vanity, the BJP leadership was a profile in quiet confidence, implicit humility. The stars of the show, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad attributed the victory to teamwork, cadre enthusiasm and focused campaign on party ideology. Inflation and anti-incumbency played their role. But it went beyond that. For example, there was a consolidation of votes between the two main contesting parties, in Punjab and Uttarakhand, squeezing out all the smaller players?the Left parties, the BSP and the SP. In the process the Congress vote share increased.
What Amrinder Singh, the ex-Chief Minister of Punjab, said is significant. Congress lost the poll to the BJP, it lost the urban centres. Even the Akalis won most of the urban seats along with the BJP, though it lost some of its rural base to the Captain. Equally significant is the drubbing the extremists like Simranjit Singh Mann got.
The relative Congress victory in Manipur also has to be seen in this light. The party'sfirm stand against extremist elements in the state and its refusal to repeal the Armed Forces Act paid off. The Congress was seen as the main nationalist force in the state, and benefited from the Pan-Indian republican sensitivity of the voters. The massive turn-out of the electorate is a case study in itself.
The lesson of the assembly poll is that the call of nationalism cuts across caste and religious lines. Politics in the country will largely be defined by the politicians? attitude to nationalist sentiments. It will not pay to be seen as playing the minority card, or offering first preference to sectarian interests to garner disparate, divisive elements on the Congress platform.
Congress has time for a mid-way course correction. Call the Sachar-Arjun bluff. Reject the thesis of tunnel vision to empowerment and education. Compete on a big ticket-plank. Let the competition be on who loves India most, who will sacrifice for realising the larger vision of integrity and consolidating India'scultural moorings. This is not a tall order.
The question remains. Has the polls brought the NDA closer to power at the centre? Is it adieu to the UPA? The pattern set in the UP, Orissa and Maharashtra local bodies election is continuing. The UPA past its prime is showing signs of fatigue. Disenchantment is peaking. The middle class is not impressed with the backward looking quota raj. But the BJP has a long way to go. It cannot show itself as a platform of power hungry politicians. It has to prove intrinsically different from the rest. In attitude, ideology, approach and goal. The centre has to represent the aspirations of not the marginal but the mainstream of the society.