Poll alarm bells ring in India

Posted in India | 05-Jun-08 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

A voter comes out of a polling booth after casting his vote in Bangalore on May 10, 2008.

NEW DELHI - Political meaning is being attached to the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent provincial elections in the south Indian state Karnataka, defeating main rival Congress party that heads the federal government in Delhi.

The BJP has returned with a near majority (110 seats out of 224 members in the assembly, up from 79 earlier) in the state and has for the first time wrested a stronghold in southern India, thus providing the party with a pan-Indian character that it has lacked.

The Congress, under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi, is clearly on its back foot but has taken some heart from the fact it managed to win a respectable 80 (up from 65 earlier) seats in Karnataka.

But, it has its task cut out in the head-to-head electoral battles with the BJP in three crucial north Indian states Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, this year that will lead up to the federal elections next year.

Karnataka, with capital city Bangalore, is the 13th electoral defeat for the Congress and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies since the last 2004 general elections.

The BJP, under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had lost 14 states on a trot, before being voted out of power in 2004. The party has moved on and is now portraying L K Advani as its prime ministerial candidate, an aspect that was played up in Karnataka and is believed to have paid some dividends, especially with the powerful Lingayat community in the north.

Advani, in turn, has been looking to shun his image as a party hardliner to appeal to moderate allies, who seek minority and Muslim votes. "The Karnataka elections are an important way-station," Arun Jaitley, the BJP general secretary in charge of Karnataka, said.

The BJP also rode on the sympathy factor for its chief ministerial candidate, B S Yeddiyurappa, who was not allowed to continue in power by regional outfit Janata Dal (Secular - JD-S) beyond one week, despite an earlier arrangement.

The JD-S (down from 58 seats earlier to 28 now) is headed by Deve Gowda, a former prime minister. Gowda calls himself a "son of the soil" due to his main farmer (of the Vokkaliga caste) support base in southern Karnataka.

Gowda led a Third Front federal coalition government in the past (mid-1990s), and has since harbored hopes to restring such an arrangement with the help of "like-minded secular parties", the left and the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

These parties also do not get along with the BJP (due to a perceived pro-majority Hindu communal agenda) or the Congress (considered a personal fiefdom of the Gandhis who promote sycophancy).

The latest results, however, more or less stamps out Gowda's calculations, as the JD-S has lost badly, perhaps due to a narrow local political approach and is now ruled out even from the state power equations.

A section of political analysts see the Karnataka results as an indication of things to come when federal general elections are held before next summer.

Other's say it is too early to predict anything, given the complicated caste factors that come into play in Indian national and state politics, including Karnataka. But it is apparent that the new federal government formation in a year is going to be anybody's guess.

One important facet of the Karnataka polls, with national implications, is the potential understanding between the BJP and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) , which could extend to the center later. Mayawati Kumari is the incumbent chief minister of the north Indian state UP and makes no bones about the fact that she aspires to be prime minister.

Mayawati's aspirations could be well-grounded. If her party wins big in UP in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of parliament) polls, she could muster enough seats to make a dash to be premier with BJP support. UP returns the maximum number of seats to parliament.

In clever socio-political engineering, Mayawati has sought to coalesce-Dalit (considered the lower caste, traditionally pro-Congress) and Brahmins (upper caste, traditionally pro-BJP) that can eat into both the Congress and BJP vote banks.

Another permutation could be BJP stalwart Advani leading and Mayawati settling for the post of the deputy prime minister or important ministerial portfolios for members of her party.

Given the nature of India's coalition politics, states and regional parties play a very important role. In 2004, the BJP, now in the opposition, could not form a government as its crucial allies TDP (Andhra Pradesh)and AIADMK (Tamil Nadu) lost. The Congress-led government today rides on the support of the left parties (West Bengal, Kerala), RJD (Bihar and DMK (Tamil Nadu).

In this context, a BJP-BSP combine could be lethal and makes a Third Front option even more difficult to stitch.

Due to differences between the Congress and BSP (with party scion Rahul Gandhi - Sonia's son - leading the anti-Mayawati brigade in UP that has often degenerated into personal attacks and aspersions), the latter decided to go it alone in all 224 seats in Karnataka.

There is talk that there was a tacit understanding between the BSP and the BJP to undercut the Congress, as happened in earlier elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat that the Congress also lost.

It is being estimated that the BSP impacted results in many constituencies in Karnataka by garnering sizeable Dalit votes that would have usually gone to the Congress.

To the chagrin of the left, a jittery SP, the other big political player in UP, is already gravitating towards the Congress, given the rise of Mayawati. This is despite the SP leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Sonia Gandhi being sworn political enemies for quite some time.

They now perceive Mayawati as the bigger adversary and in a politically symbolic gesture senior SP leader Amar Singh was recently invited to participate in celebrations to mark four years of the UPA government, sharing a dinner table with Sonia and Manmohan.

Indeed, the Congress needs to get its act right, to check a seemingly resurgent BJP and allies, existing and potential. Manmohan, Sonia and perhaps Rahul will be the party mascots in 2009.

The Karnataka election was the first test of the massive farm loan waiver initiative to be implemented nationally that was announced by the federal government in the February budget.

Congress' prospects, it seems, were hit by the recent spurt in inflation (nearly 8%) in essential commodities, which affected urban areas, including technology hub Bangalore, where nearly 40% of the Karnataka electorate resides.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.