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The old order changeth

Until the BJP decides whether it will veer rightwards by hardening its Hindutva agenda or whether it will try to re-invent itself as an inclusive and moderate right-of-centre force, it will remain in disarray, writes Suhit Sen.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2009 21:09 IST
Suhit Sen

This year’s general elections seemed to have signalled a shift in voting behaviour countrywide. Some commentators noted that what seemed to be driving electoral choices was a new kind of rational and material calculus as opposed to sectarian and communitarian loyalties and the politics of patronage and intimidation inseparably linked to them.

Subsequent elections seem to be bearing out the accuracy of this observation. First came a round of assembly by-elections and now we have at hand the results of the elections in three states where the Congress and its allies have performed creditably — better than expected in Maharashtra with a tenuous majority, worse than expected in Haryana falling marginally short at the time of writing and, as expected by and large, sweeping the assembly in Arunachal Pradesh.

Perhaps of greater importance is the relative failure of the sectarian parties in all the states. With 95-odd seats in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has lost considerable ground. In Haryana, though the Congress has fared less well than expected, it is Om Prakash Chautala’s party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), now disentangled from the BJP, which has done unexpectedly well. The BJP itself is struggling with barely five seats in a 90-strong assembly.

But before proceeding farther, a caveat. It is nobody’s case that ‘primordial’ loyalties and the mobilisational networks that rest on them have ceased to exist. What is, however, distinctly arguable is that loyalties engendered by the identities of caste, religion, region and language are being severely attenuated as voters seek to bring into government parties that will provide them with material benefits and good governance.

Let’s begin with Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena and BJP have lost ground, while the Congress has bucked anti-incumbency sentiments generated by all of 10 fairly undistinguished years in power. One reason cited for what happened was that Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) eroded the Shiv Sena’s vote bank and gave the Congress-NCP alliance a clearer run. That may well be true. At this point, it is not possible to ascertain the extent to which this was responsible — we will have to wait for more detailed statistics on voting percentages and statistical profiles. But it is certainly possible to make one claim: that the MNS would have worked as spoiler largely in urban areas because that’s where the party’s bases lie. Quite clearly, too, the Congress and NCP have done well among the rural electorate. The big reason for that, of course, were the measures taken to bail out farmers who were committing suicide in Vidarbha and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has been implemented better in Maharashtra than it has been in most other states.

With little to go on, it is not possible to pinpoint why the Congress did not fare as well as it was expected to in Haryana. Anti-incumbency, complacence and factionalism could have been contributory factors. The important thing was that the BJP, lacking a positive programme and banking on its sectarian ideology, failed to capitalise, while the INLD gained.

It is arguable that the best thing that happened to it was the BJP’s decision to jettison their alliance. The BSP did not
make an appreciable impact.

The BJP’s poor showing may, in part, have been fuelled by the disarray that the party is in, especially right at the top. But that is not the entire story. Until the party decides whether it will veer rightwards by hardening its Hindutva agenda or whether it will try to re-invent itself as an inclusive and moderate right-of-centre force, it will remain in disarray. And if it plumps for Option A, it will surely be in danger of making itself more and more irrelevant on the national stage.

Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer on politics

The views expressed by the author are personal