There is a key difference in the thrust of the Congress and the BJP as both parties go full throttle into their campaigns for the assembly elections to be held over the next six weeks in six states: Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir.
Since the BJP is in power in three of the six - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan - and the Congress only in Delhi, the latter prefers to concentrate on local issues, pointing to the various shortcomings in the performance of the incumbent BJP governments. The BJP, in contrast, is focusing largely on national issues, which would put the Congress led union government in the dock.
“A long season of electioneering has begun. The campaign is also for the next general elections,” said leader of the opposition and NDA prime ministerial candidate L K Advani. (see interview)
"We expect a resounding vote against the BJP's corruption, divisive politics and misgovernance in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh,” said Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
But as 10 crore Indian voters - almost the entire population of the United Kingdom and Spain combined - prepare to vote, both parties are agreed that this is a significant semi-final before the grand final of Indian politics - elections to the 15th Lok Sabha in less than six months from now.
Seventy nine of India’s 543 parliament constituencies fall in these six states, with one seventh of India’s total electorate. It’s the first time during the tenure of the current union government that six states are voting together.
The BJP has been ruling Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh for a single term, the Congress has held Delhi for two. J&K, ruled by a Congress-PDP coalition, went under Governor’s Rule once the coalition came apart last July, while an MNF government has presided over Mizoram for two terms as well. Congress is fighting regional parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party in J &K, and Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram.
“Local issues are important, but the current campaign will also involve a meaningful discussion on national issues,” said Arun Jaitley, BJP general secretary. Advani listed terrorism, inflation, and the agrarian crisis as the issues that will dominate (See interview).
A sharp focus on state issues will hurt the BJP. In MP, it had to change its chief minister twice in five years. Uma Bharati was replaced by Babulal Gaur, who in turn made way for Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The Chouhan ministry has seen its share of financial scandals too, notably one relating to the purchase of medical equipment and another where trucks belonging to the chief minister’s wife were involved
Dissensions within, and two major agitations by the Gujjars, in 2007 and again in 2008, demanding scheduled tribe status - which saw more than 60 deaths, most of them due to police firing on violent mobs – have also chipped away at the image of the Vasundhara Raje led BJP government in Rajasthan. In Chhattisgarh, the government has not been able to rein in the Naxalites. “BJP’s attempt is to avoid discussions on these issues. But they won’t succeed,” says Sitaram Yechuri, CPM politburo member.
The J&K polls are of high national significance by themselves. In the Kashmir valley – reeling under a renewed demand for azaadi - the willingness of the electorate to participate in the poll itself is under question. A transparent election with wide participation will dampen the azaadi cries. "Pakistan has never been so flexible on the Kashmir issue as it is now," said Happymon Jacob, coordinator of Pugwash, an international NGO dedicated to resolving armed conflicts, which is also involved in Kashmir. "It chose not to take advantage of the recent agitation in the valley. Mainstream parties like the PDP too are reinterpreting azaadi in a more nuanced way. This is good news."
The results of the semi-finals may not necessarily be a forerunner to what will happen in the final. In late 2003, convincing victories in Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan had prompted the BJP to advance the national elections that they lost in May 2004!
But the outcome will influence the formation of national alliances – for instance, a BJP surge will entice AIADMK towards it, while the Congress and the Left would seek to renew their friendship.