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Rude shock from freebie lab

New Delhi, Dec. 8: The spectacular debut of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party in the national capital may have robbed a resurgent BJP of an outright 4-0 victory this chilly December afternoon.

But that was little consolation for the Congress which came face to face with its worst nightmare: not only had millions of Indians rejected its brand of politics in state after state just months before the 2014 general election but Sonia Gandhi’s favoured brand of welfare economics too had found no takers.

For the last four days, the Congress had resolutely dismissed exit poll surveys that had predicted a 4-0 defeat for the Grand Old Party and sent the sensex zooming at the prospect. But as results poured in from the four key northern states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, it was clear that there was no place to run for cover. The actual results — after the glimmer of hope in Chhattisgarh was snuffed out — were considerably worse than what the pollsters had reckoned.

The Congress did not just face defeat in Delhi and Rajasthan — it suffered a comprehensive rout. Just as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s personal defeat in the Bengal elections two years ago signified the depth of the ruling Left Front’s fall from grace, the humiliation faced by Delhi’s till recently much loved chief minister Sheila Dikshit at the hands of this election’s “man of the match” Arvind Kejriwal in the prestigious New Delhi constituency symbolised the anti-Congress mood gripping the nation right now.

In the case of Sheila, who had ruled Delhi for three consecutive terms with Úlan and transformed a parochial capital into a “world class” metropolis where Indians from every corner of the country found a home, the defeat could be attributed to events beyond her control.

With Delhi being the seat of the central government, much of the ire against UPA II’s perceived corruption, policy paralysis and callousness crystallised in this city —drawing thousands of irate citizens out of their houses when Anna Hazare camped here for days and then again when the city erupted in unprecedented protest over the Delhi bus gang rape almost exactly a year ago.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which grew out of the Anna Hazare movement, succeeded in galvanising this “anti-politician” sentiment that lurks just below the surface of this “city of VVIPs” in a spectacular fashion through an innovative, grassroots campaign never witnessed before.

The acute price rise of basic food items and the AAP’s promise of cheap electricity and free water among a host of other untested dreams helped expand its appeal among the poorer sections of the city.

Although the BJP, with its traditional strongholds across Delhi, capitalised on the anti-incumbency sentiment to emerge the single largest party, the AAP’s dream debut has made it fall short of a simple majority.

In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot has no such excuse. In a 200-seat Assembly, the Congress has been reduced to a pathetic 21 — much less than what Kejriwal managed for his fledgling party in an Assembly one-third the size of Rajasthan’s.

The defeat in Rajasthan must come as a particularly rude shock to Sonia, who used the state as a “laboratory” of sorts for her pet social welfare schemes.

While the food bill providing highly subsidised grains to 75 per cent of the population is yet to roll out, Rajasthan was the first state to provide free medicines to the poor.

Yet, the culture of freebies clearly did not work in a state where Narendra Modi campaigned extensively and effectively sold the dream of turning Rajasthan into another Gujarat by unleashing the entrepreneurial energies of the people rather than handing them doles.

In fact, the much-debated Modi factor may not have worked too well in Delhi (where Kejriwal made deep inroads not only into Congress bases but also attracted the youth who otherwise chant “Namo”) or in Chhattisgarh (where Raman Singh revels in being a Sonia-style dispenser of largesse), but it certainly helped Vasundhara Raje record a resounding victory in Rajasthan.

The Congress’s efforts to clutch on to the “anti-incumbency” straw may have worked in the case of Delhi and Rajasthan, if it were not for its dismal performance in Madhya Pradesh and less than impressive outcome in Chhattisgarh.

In both states, the BJP had been ruling for two terms and given the new impatience of the post-reform “aspirational” India, they were ripe for the picking. That Shivraj Singh Chouhan managed to turn that incipient anti-incumbency mood, especially against many of his ministers and MLAs, into an emphatic pro-incumbency verdict is not just a tribute to the “inclusive” political skills of the wannabe Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the BJP’s current pantheon but also an indictment of the pathetic state of the Congress organisation and leadership in this key heartland state.

The Congress’s problem, as always, was the refusal to give charge to one leader and instead divide the state between various “satraps” — Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Suresh Pachouri, Ajay Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia et al.

That most of these leaders are based in Delhi, and none carried out a sustained campaign in the state except in the run-up to the elections, may be one reason that the party has faced its third consecutive rout.

Like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are among a handful of states where the Congress and the BJP are in a direct bipolar contest. In Gujarat, the Congress has been out of power for nearly two decades.

Unless the Congress radically changes its style of functioning in keeping with the utterly changed expectations and aspirations of the Indian electorate and builds up strong state leaders as was the norm in the pre-Indira Gandhi Congress dispensation, its erstwhile bastion of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh could go either the Gujarat or (if third forces emerge) the Uttar Pradesh/Bihar way.

Congress spokespersons tried to make light of today’s rout by citing the precedents of 1998 and 2003. In the winter of 1998, the Congress won (then united) Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi but that didn’t stop the Vajpayee-led NDA from winning the Lok Sabha elections a year later.

In 2003, the reverse happened. Buoyed by the victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the Vajpayee government advanced the Lok Sabha polls by a few months — and then faced an unexpected defeat in the summer of 2004.

But the summer of 2014 may not offer such solace. Well before this round of elections, the UPA dispensation was looking and behaving like a lame duck government, retreating into a shell of silence even as a rampaging Narendra Modi barnstormed across the land. Today’s results are certain to give a bigger spring to his step, even if the assortment of regional parties may take heart from the AAP performance to fashion a “non-Congress, non-BJP” alternative that can only fructify after the general election, not before it.

Rahul Gandhi, for some time now, has been talking of transforming his party structure to give voice to the “common man”. With Kejriwal actually implementing that on the ground, Rahul today admitted that the newest kid on the block was the role model for the oldest party in the arena.

“We are going to do even better than that,” he said, and added for good measure: “We are going to transform the party in ways you cannot imagine.”

The Congress vice-president, two decades younger than Modi, may not be in any hurry to carry out that promised transformation, and may be eyeing not 2014 but 2019 or even 2024, for all we know. The question is: in this age of instant everything, will India wait that long?

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