The countdown to elections in three states has begun. Though the Congress seems confident of retaining power, the central government’s failure to curb rising prices could prove to be a costly proposition. The superior position of the Congress appears to be on account of a divided Opposition. Add to this the infighting in the BJP where its current leadership looks determined to defy the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
But things may not be smooth sailing for the ruling party and there is no cause for complacency. There is evidence to suggest that there could be a shift in the public mood since the parliamentary polls. For instance, in the four Assembly by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party won three and the Rashtriya Lok Dal one. In Delhi, of the five municipal corporation seats, the BJP won three, the Congress, one, with one going to an Independent candidate. In the Delhi University Students’ Union polls, which the Congress has usually won, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and its rebels caused a major upset. Similarly, in the DU teachers’ elections, the Congress candidate came fourth. In the by-polls for two Assembly seats in Delhi to be held shortly, political observers give party dissident Ramvir Singh Bidhuri a winning chance in Okhla. It would seem that Sheila Dikshit’s magic is wearing off. People in the Capital have started looking at issues more realistically.
In short, the seemingly favourable position of the Congress is only on paper. It may not necessarily translate into victory unless the party bosses distribute tickets with the intention of winning and refrain from giving nominations to their favourites. In the past too, the Congress has lost because of the faulty distribution of tickets.
In Maharashtra, the delay in even deciding on the tie-up with the NCP has not gone down well with people. The party has appointed Sushil Kumar Shinde as the chairman of the campaign committee, clearly because he had proved a winner last time. He virtually rescued the Congress and delivered 69 MLAs, besides three of the CPI(M) who won thanks to him. The NCP, which got the winning seats, ended up with 71 MLAs. But political intrigue led to Shinde being shunted out as Governor of Andhra Pradesh and Vilasrao Deshmukh being re-appointed as the CM.
The Maharashtra government is at present headed by Ashok Chavan but there are leaders in Delhi who think that Vilasrao should be sent back after the polls despite the fact that the present CM is Rahul Gandhi’s nominee. The issue that can hurt the Congress in the long-run is the Sharad Pawar factor. Ever since the UPA returned to power, several leaders have been taking pot shots at the Maharashtra strongman. He has kept quiet as he is both mature and astute. But he will show his true colours once the election results are out. He may contest the polls along with the Congress. But his options on what to do later will always be open, even if he says that he will stick with the alliance. This is something, which may have far-reaching ramifications.
In Haryana, the Congress seems to be heading for a big win. The Opposition is totally divided and a four-cornered fight suits the ruling dispensation more than it does anyone else. Bhupinder Singh Hooda has provided good leadership to the state and is looking forward to another term. However, if rising prices become the primary issue, the results may surprise everyone. The mandate, in that case, would be against the Centre’s failure to check the costs of essential commodities.
In addition, the Congress has to face fresh challenges, the latest being its decision to install a successor to Y.S.R. Reddy in Andhra. It may be on the backfoot if the party loses the two Assembly seats in Delhi, where things seem to have gone awfully wrong (with rains playing havoc, given sub- standard infrastructure). The USP of the Congress over the years has been its ability to identify with the common man (aam aadmi). Rising prices are distancing it from its core constituency. Between us.