| The incumbency factor
The legislative elections due in December are assuming significance far beyond the immediate results they would throw up in the five states. They will provide the last and the largest sample of the public mood before the entire country votes for the next Parliament.
These elections will indicate whether or not the Bharatiya Janata Party remains the coalescing and leading force of the National Democratic Alliance. They will test both the unity of the party in the election-going states as well as the younger leadership that the BJP is projecting.
The December elections will also help the votaries of the third front decide whether or not they should put together such an entity. And they will demonstrate the impact of the leadership of Sonia Gandhi on the electoral prospects of her party.
The spate of advertisements in the national press and television about the achievements of the Vajpayee government (now banned by the Election Commission) clearly indicated that the BJP is aware of the crucial impact of the state elections on its future. It was after all putting its entire record of governance at the Centre on trial.
For the BJP to retain the leadership of the NDA, it has to win the two crucial states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Only a miracle can catapult it to power in Delhi. The peculiarities of Mizoram and Chhattisgarh are such that the election results there would not be a portent of the public mood elsewhere.
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, however, will see largely direct contests between the two big parties and provide an indication of the mood of the voters in the adjoining states and ethnic groups.
In Rajasthan, for example, the most important factor will be the Jat vote which predominates in Barmer, Jodhpur, Jhunjunu, Sikar, Chittorgarh, Bharatpur and parts of Jaipur. The Jats are decisive in several other constituencies also. Their grievance is that ever since the formation of Rajasthan state no Jat has ever become its chief minister. Political parties will try and project the Rajasthan voting pattern to assess what might happen in the 40 Jat-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies in the next general election.
Southern Rajasthan (comprising parts of Udaipur, Banswara and Dungarpur) is a tribal area contiguous to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The vote preferences there would provide pointers to whether the BJP’s blatant communalism in Gujarat has had any impact across the border. Southern Rajasthan so far has been a traditional Congress stronghold.
The Bharatpur area has pockets of influence of the Bahujan Samaj Party. It has also witnessed sporadic clashes between the scheduled caste Jatavs and the Jats. Electoral results in this belt would provide an indication of the impact and influence of Mayavati.
In Madhya Pradesh the voting pattern in Malwa (Indore, Ujjain, Ratlam, Mandsaur) will demonstrate whether the BJP has been able to maintain its traditional strength. This is the area where the Jan Sangh used to thrive. The voting pattern in the Mahakaushal area (Jabalpur) would be an extension of the trends in Chhattisgarh and in Nimar (Khandwa), the likely trends in adjoining areas of Maharashtra would be indicated.
Similarly, Rewa would provide a feel of the mood across in the adjoining areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand (Gwalior, Jhansi, Beena, Morena). It will show whether or not the Lodhs and other backward classes are with the BJP. Uma Bharati, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, is a Lodh and comes from this region.
The BJP is faction-ridden both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and the Congress has skillful incumbent chief ministers. The efficient distribution of foodgrains during the drought this year has added to the popularity of Ashok Gehlot. Gehlot himself is seen to be personally honest although people perceive the state bureaucracy to be corrupt. On the other hand, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Vasundhara Raje, has mended her fences with most of her vocal critics in the party and this has suddenly made her fortunes look up.
In Madhya Pradesh, Uma Bharati seems to have realized that focusing on governance and infrastructure issues is likely to pay better dividends than harping on Hindutva. The incumbent chief minister, Digvijay Singh, who is a clever politician, had expected Hindutva to dominate the BJP’s campaign strategy. Instead, the BJP’s attempt is to stoke the anti-incumbency sentiments associated with his 10-year rule. The contest in the two Hindi heartland states, therefore, will be extremely keen and the results cannot be forecast with any confidence at this stage.
An electoral setback for the Congress in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will help underline the fact that the longer the Congress remains in the Nehru-Gandhi family-leadership-trap, the dimmer would be its chances of rejuvenation. Should the Congress lose, Sonia Gandhi’s credibility as party president may be eroded. It is doubtful, however, whether this would lead to any change because despite enjoying enormous public equity the Congress has shown complete bankruptcy on the leadership issue.
A Congress defeat in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan would provide a real fillip to the votaries of the third front. The exercise for setting up such a front has already begun. It is not for nothing that the alliance partner of the Congress in Maharashtra — the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar — has chosen this crucial juncture to rake up the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins.
It is an open secret that Pawar has been in consultations with Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and Ramvilas Paswan on the possibility of forming a third front for the next general election. Mulayam Singh Yadav may also not be averse to such a move, especially if it might mean his becoming the prime minister. Laloo Yadav may then be one of the few allies left with the Congress.
While the broad anti-BJP coalition that the Congress had hoped for at Simla is nowhere in sight, there are indications of its potential allies moving towards a common front. The states where the Congress needs allies are Maharashtra (total seats 48), UP (80 seats), Bihar (40 seats) and Tamilnadu and Pondicherry (39 plus one). These states account for 208 Lok Sabha constituencies. If one takes into account West Bengal (42), where the Congress is a marginal factor, it is clear that the third front can potentially impact nearly 250 Lok Sabha constituencies. The Congress and the BJP together account for 300 seats in the Lok Sabha, the rest 250 are with the smaller parties. The aim of the third front proponents would be to increase this number at the cost of the two bigger parties.
The Congress and the BJP both need at least 180 seats to lead the next coalition government. The BJP may go down from its 1999 tally of 182, but it is difficult to see the Congress going up from 112. In such a scenario — especially if the Congress does not do well in the state assembly elections, the third front will definitely come into being. What is evident is that although the efforts to form a third front will gain ground only after the results of the December elections are known, its formation will affect the Congress more acutely than the BJP.