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Inside the states

The Congress loss to its opponents in two states — Punjab and Uttarakhand — has wide ranging ramifications for the party and its government at the Centre, notwithstanding efforts of some senior leaders to play down the defeat, writes Pankaj Vohra.
None | By Between us | Pankaj Vohra
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2007 05:46 AM IST

The Congress loss to its opponents in two states — Punjab and Uttarakhand — has wide ranging ramifications for the party and its government at the Centre, notwithstanding efforts of some senior leaders to play down the defeat. The results should serve as a wake-up call for the top leadership whose emphasis should now be on addressing issues of concern to the aam aadmi, instead of harping on great economic growth and rise in Sensex. Rising prices are threatening to alienate large sections from the party.

It is not anybody’s argument that the economic reform process or the liberalisation policy should be abandoned. But it is more important to take care of the concerns of the common man. The clear message from the results is that any government which is unable to control prices will always find it difficult to survive. A trend which has emerged from the two recent polls — Mumbai civic elections and now assembly elections — is that the urban voter seems to have made up his mind about turning away from the ruling party.

It was essentially this segment which moved away from the BJP and contributed to the NDA’s rout in the 2004 elections. Manmohan Singh became an iconic figure for this section with his clean image and impressive track record. But it now has decided to move back to the BJP.

In Punjab, it is not the policies of outgoing Chief Minister Amarinder Singh that caused the party to lose the polls. Had anti-incumbency been a major factor, the Congress would not have ended up winning 44 seats as against the Akali Dal’s 48. It was the shift in the urban vote towards the BJP which upset calculations. In fact, for the first time, the Akali Dal has come to power in the state on the strength of seats won by the BJP and after losing half the seats it contested.

The overwhelming success of the BJP will serve as a check on the Akalis at all times. Those who predicted that Sukhbir Singh Badal, the young dynamic party general secretary who spearheaded the Akali Dal campaign will take over the chief ministership from his father, Parkash Singh Badal, may now have to wait a little longer. Had the Akalis got a majority on their own, this could have been possible but now the decision will depend equally on the BJP.

The Akalis do have reason to celebrate. But they also have reason to introspect on why they failed to get a majority on their own. Was it because the selection of candidates was wrong or because people had doubts over giving a clear verdict to the Akalis? Or, while teaching Congress a lesson for its failure to control prices, did the voters in rural areas recognise the good work done for them by Amarinder Singh? Those who witnessed the campaign in Punjab would acknowledge that had it not been for Amarinder Singh and his never-say-die spirit, the Congress would have been wiped out.

There is also a legal issue for the BJP that is likely to come up. The Supreme Court, in December, had granted permission to the Punjab government to start the trial in a corruption case against Badal. But a strange situation is likely to arise if Badal takes over as CM since both the prosecution branch and the vigilance department which probed the case fall directly under the CM’s control.

The results have also put the BJP on the political centre-stage again. Its string of bad runs ended with the victory in Maharashtra’s civic polls. The winning streak continued in Punjab and could run up to Delhi, in the municipal polls next month.

The saffron party is giving credit for its success in Uttarakhand and punjab to some leaders. One must be realistic. The BJP has to go into the UP elections soon and unless it recognises its own flaws, it could come across some rough weather. The party in UP is going to be pitted against the BSP and the Samajwadi Party. The reasons for their victory over the Congress in the two states were different from the ground realities of UP.

The BJP should, in fact, be introspecting on why it fell short of one seat in Uttarakhand, despite tall claims of winning 45 out of 70 seats in the hilly state. It should also try to find out why it lost Tehri Garhwal to Congress nominee Vijay Bahuguna despite winning from there since the early 1990s. Its victory was more on account of negative voting against the Congress. It must take into account the damage done to its winning prospects by Uma Bharti’s outfit. In fact, the party lost the Lok Sabha bye election and at least half a dozen assembly seats on account of the presence of Uma Bharti’s nominees in the polls. In Tehri for instance, Bharti’s candidate got nearly 22,000 votes.

The party must realise that the pattern of damaging the BJP by Uma’s group will continue both in UP and in Delhi. In Delhi, Madan Lal Khurana can play an effective negative role. In any case, the BJP government in Uttarakhand will have a very fragile majority. As things stand, there is already a power tussle between Gen. B.C. Khanduri and Bhagat Singh Koshiari’s supporters and the loser may not take kindly to the final verdict. The BJP must realise that till it takes some corrective measures within its own party structure, success on the basis of negative voting against the Congress is not sufficient to get it back to power at the Centre. In short, it is time for both the winners and losers of the state elections to introspect. Between us.

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