From the cold of Shimla comes heart-warming news for all those who feared that the Bharatiya Janata Party, riding a Hindutva wave, was poised to repeat its Gujarat success in the polls. The BJP has suffered a resounding defeat in Himachal Pradesh where it has secured only 16 of the 65 constituencies that went to the polls. This has happened despite the fact that Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister, as well as Mr Narendra Modi, who carried all before him in the Gujarat elections, campaigned in Himachal Pradesh. It would be simplistic, of course, to read the results as a rejection of the BJP on ideological grounds. More practical and sectoral factors probably influenced the outcome of the elections. It was clear from the beginning of the campaign that the BJP was a house divided. There was neither ideological nor organizational unity. Disaffected groups and individuals, who had been denied tickets or had grievances against the state party leadership, put up rival candidates. This only served to split the anti-Congress vote. There was also the ubiquitous anti-incumbency factor and allegations of corruption against the outgoing government. If the ideological factor came into play at all, it was in the mode and the tenor of the campaigning. The BJP leadership, including Mr Vajpayee, concentrated on Hindutva issues like the Ram mandir, whereas the Congress focused on development, corruption and employment.
The Congress, however, will be myopic if it were to be overjoyed with the results in Himachal Pradesh. No doubt, it is a victory but its significance should not be overestimated. There might be a propensity towards this within the Congress because it coincides with the party’s victories in the Northeast. The Congress leadership would do well to remember that triumphs in Himachal Pradesh and the Northeast may not alter the overall national scenario since these states do not have the numbers which might change the composition of the Lok Sabha. In the states that will bring the numbers — Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and so on — the Congress is no longer in a strong position. In fact, in some of them it is not even a key player. One has only to look at the results of the by-elections in UP. The power-equation in India’s largest state clearly revolves around the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. The Congress’s capability of being a formidable challenger to the BJP will depend on its performance in Rajasthan and MP, and on its ability to forge an alliance with anti-BJP forces like the Samajwadi Party. The road ahead for the Congress is long and tortuous.