A dress rehearsal is never as enthralling as the real performance. This is true though only for theatre on the stage. For political theatre, a dress rehearsal is exciting because it often provides indicators of the actual performance. The actual performance is, of course, the general election scheduled for the second half of next year. But the dress rehearsal is on Monday when four states in north India, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls. A test of popularity will also be held in Mizoram. More than the carnival that elections have come to represent in India, this round of polling, especially in the four states, is being seen as a test for two parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. In all the four states, the Congress is in power. The BJP is trying to break through and create bases in these states for the bigger national battle next year. The Congress, somewhat in disarray at the national level, is using these elections to consolidate its position in the four provinces that it has been ruling.
Theatre is nothing without actors and actresses, the more famous, the better. Political theatre, paradoxically in a democracy like India, has always been dominated by individuals. Issues take a back seat. In Delhi, the choice before the electorate is between Ms Sheila Dixit and Mr Madan Lal Khurana. The formerís popularity is the Congressís trump card over the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, Mr Digvijay Singh is in the firing line rather than the Congress. It is his reputation and popularity which are at stake. In Rajasthan, the battle is between Mr Ashoke Gehlot and Ms Vasundhara Raje Scindia. In Chhattisgarh, the fate of the BJP might well be decided by the actions of one individual: Mr Dilip Singh Judeo. It could be argued that this has always been the trend in Indian electoral politics. The name of Indira Gandhi meant more than the Congress organization. This trend is not altogether healthy for a democracy. It suggests that voters are swayed by personal appeal and charisma. It also suggests that in the general elections next year, the contest will not be between the BJP and the Congress, nor will it be on the grounds of secularism versus communalism. Rather the battle will be pitched as one between Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, between the pretender and the prime minister.
It is ironic but true that the BJP, despite being the ruling party at the Centre, is the party doing the running to dislodge the Congress in the four states. The latter begins with an initial advantage. If the Congress retains this advantage and translates it into votes on the polling day, there will be a clear division of power between the provinces and the Centre. The BJP is struggling against declining popularity. Nobody is willing to make it the front-runner in these four states.
In a federal polity, there is an almost inevitable disjunction between the whole and the parts. The latter often do not add up to the former. Thus the Congressís control over the states may not add upto forming a central government. Conversely, the BJPís tenure at the Centre may not reflect the configuration of power in the provinces. There is a difference between regional and national theatres.