The saffron flag flies high in three of the four states that went to the polls on Monday. The victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party are convincing and pregnant with messages for the BJP, the Congress and the overall political scenario in northern India. The BJP entered the campaign without what has always been the most important item on its ideological agenda: Hindutva. The party leadership kept aside communal and divisive issues, and focussed on development, governance and the ability to rule. These have been the three pillars of the tenure of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has tried, since the day he assumed office, to underplay the Hindu fundamentalist image of the BJP. He has tried to project his party as the party of governance and to position it as a viable replacement of the Congress of yore. This was reflected in the campaigning and has come up trumps as the election results amply demonstrate. This achievement notwithstanding, it will be facile to see the election results as a triumph only of Mr Vajpayee and his line. The victories are rooted in the work done by the foot-soldiers of the party and by the campaign managers in the three provinces. They played on the incumbency and the fatigue factors and was able to convince the electorate that a BJP government once installed would be better on performance and delivery. It is significant that in the only state which the Congress has retained, Delhi, the voters have favoured a chief minister who delivered and was committed to a programme of improvement. These were elections in which achievement or lack of it counted for more than ideology.
The focus on development and governance has important implications for the BJP. It shows to the faithful that religion is not the only vote-winner in Indian politics. It is conceivable that in the general elections next year, for which these assembly elections were only a dry run, religion and fanaticism will take back seats. Mr Vajpayee would like to project the BJP under his leadership as the only party capable of providing a stable and reasonably efficient government. This will also enable him to cement further the National Democratic Alliance. These state-level victories give Mr Vajpayee and his supporters a strong enough perch within the BJP to ignore the Hindutva hardliners and to make them irrelevant to the outcome of elections. If the BJP succeeds in this, it would have brought Indian democracy out of its adolescent shell to maturity.
The Congress can only stand by and watch its sails being taken away by the BJP. Under Ms Sonia Gandhi, the Congress is a party without an agenda. Like water, confusion also always flows downwards. The leadership’s lack of direction is reflected in the failure of the campaign. The Congress is the originator of economic reforms, but it still swears by Nehruvianism. It claims to be secular, but does not hesitate to campaign around a soft-Hindutva banner. It is an upholder of democracy, that refuses to disown the Emergency and owes allegiance to a family. Yesterday’s party of governance is today’s also-ran.