On Sunday, August 13, 2006, the Chennai-based The Hindu known for its objectivity and fairness carried a full-page report on The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, which tried to answer two important questions. Where exactly was the UPA Government in Delhi gaining seats and votes? Secondly, what explains the rise of the UPA? The presumption was, one, that the UPA was gaining seats and two, that it was rising in popularity.
The survey showed that voting behaviour had begun to change and that the Congress was the main beneficiary of this trend. It noted that ?the overall perception of the (UPA) government's performance is more positive than newspaper headlines might suggest?. It further suggested that if a Lok Sabha election had been held in August 2006 ?the ruling coalition'stally could have crossed 300 seats, substantially more than the 222 the Congress won in the 2004 elections? largely at the expense of the NDA'stally.
The UPA, said the survey, could get 240 seats, some distance away from a simple majority, but more than what it secured in any Lok Sabha elections since 1991. Understandably, there was despondence in the BJP camp which the media, ever on the look-out to dawn it, said was caused by the dissensions within the party leadership and following. From May 2004 to August 2006, the survey also noted, Sonia Gandhi'spopularity had risen from 27.2 per cent to 27.9 per cent while Vajpayee'spopularity had plummeted from 38.3 to 18.5. Manmohan Singh'spopularity, too had apparently risen from O.2 per cent to 12.0 per cent.
Many truly believed that the BJP and its allies were in a state of disarray. For example, in Mumbai, where municipal elections were to be held, it was claimed that the popularity of Balasaheb Thackeray was on the slide and the defection of Narayan Rane, a leading figure in the Shiv Sena to Congress and of Balasaheb'sown newphew Raj Thackeray who had left the party to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have sounded the Shiv Sena'sdeath knell.
Balasaheb Thackeray, it turned out, had the last laugh. For the Congress that was bad enough. Worse was to follow when elections to the local Assemblies were held in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur, in late February 2007. In Punjab, the Opposition Akali Dal and its NDA ally the BJP have become the beneficiaries of the voters? disenchantment with the Congress. Telugu Desam Party president N.Chandrababu Naidu described Congress failure in Punjab and Uttarakhand by saying that ?the downward slide for the Congress has begun and it appears to be losing ground faster than what the Opposition parties had expected?.
According to him the people had clearly expressed their anger over ?surging prices, corruption, poor performance of Congress governments both at the Centre and in states and making false promises like free power for agriculture in Punjab?. Naidu also predicted a similar blow to Congress in the scheduled Uttar Pradesh elections. The standard excuses given by the secular English media for Congress failure are rising prices, inflation and corruption. But are these the only reasons?
The media seems blind to another factor, namely the anger of Hindus at the glaring effort made by Congress to make a major distinction between the Hindu and Muslim poor. Hindus form 81 per cent of India'spopulation, while Muslims form 13 per cent. There surely are more poor among the Hindus than there are among Muslims and Dr Manmohan Singh deliberate effort to woo the Muslim vote by saying that aid to Muslim poor should get first?and top?preference must have hurt the Hindu psyche very badly. One can, of course, give several reasons why the Shiv-Sena-BJP combine won in the Mumbai municipal elections, why the Sikhs preferred the SAD-BJP combine to the Congress but not a single English newspaper has cared to analyse the effect on the Hindu popular mind by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh'sremarks?no doubt well-meant?about giving the Muslim poor preference over the Hindu poor. Perhaps his columnist is overstating the issue. There may NOT be a feasible Hindu vote-bank. Perhaps the rise of the cost of one kilogram of onions has had a greater impact on all people?irrespective of their caste, creed or religion ?than the Prime Minister'sthoughtless, if carefully-worded remarks on giving preferential treatment to the Muslim poor, but one never knows how the citizens? sub-conscience works.
What is plain, however, is the fact that secularism, as conceived by the so-called secularists, has had its day. The Congress, for all one knows, may still win the day. It would be a very foolish NDA and BJP to put out the theory that the recent elections show the beginning of the end of the UPA. We will need patience. The results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections may be a pointer to the future?one way or another. But, at this point in time it would be invidious to jump to conclusions even when the Stock Market plummeted. But there are indications that the UPA is losing in popularity. It has no nation-wide leaders and the media reaction to Shri P. Chidambaram's budget speech was at best lukewarm.
It may be claimed that ?Hindutva as conceived by the secularists has had its day, but so has secularism and sadly, according to The Tribune (February 2) the lure in Punjab was not an ideology but ?drugs, poppy husk, liquor and other intoxicants? and money.
Public perceptions are changing but there is no gain saying the fact that the so-called secularism of the Congress has pushed many non-committal Hindus away from it; emotional hurts are not so easily identifiable and if Congress and the UPA still think they can get away with taunting Hindu poor they are living in a fools? paradise.
Dr Manmohan Singh has unconsciously divided the country along religious lines. He may think that his care for the Muslim poor is genuine and should be respected. Maybe he will win many Muslim votes. What is relevant is how many Hindu votes he has lost. And that is not easy to decipher. There are so many issues involved in general elections like, the hold of local parties like the DMK and AIDMK, the BSP on the people and a whole lot of others, which are presently in coalition with the Congress in the UPA, and the BJP in the NDA.
We need more evidence. Perhaps the elections soon due in Uttar Pradesh may provide some answer. But in terms of India as a whole, it is wiser not to come to foregone conclusions. The NDA, especially, will be wise to remember how the ?India Shining? slogan brought it down. No matter how sophisticated our psephologists are, the Indian mind is not so easily decipherable.
Ergo, the BJP must play its cards, to unite people to fight poverty in a tangible way. That surely will show good result.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)