The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Arjun Singh once walked out of a meeting that was held to decide on the leader of the Congress legislative party following the party’s resounding victory in the 1993 assembly elections. The Congress strongman’s defiance was to protest the defeat of Subhash Yadav, an emerging lower caste leader whose name he had proposed. His political protégée, Digvijay Singh, then president of the state unit of the party, was elected chief minister. Arjun Singh’s much-publicized exit has become part of the folklore of socio-electoral engineering in one the major states of India. Arjun Singh’s detractors believed that his action was no more than symbolic, that it was an ingenious strategy to forcibly include the backward castes in the political agenda. After all, Arjun Singh had been pitchforked into the centrestage of Madhya Pradesh politics by Sanjay Gandhi’s political strategy to broaden the coalition of Brahmin, Muslim and Dalits by including the Rajputs in the Congress fold. Others said that Arjun Singh’s action was designed to scuttle the chances of a fellow Rajput who could emerge as an alternative centre of power in the state.

Whatever be Arjun Singh’s motives, the Congress, at this point of time, was also taking belated cognizance of the upward mobility of the politically deprived. After the rise of Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose new social strategy had brought him unprecedented political dividends in the 1991 parliamentary polls in Bihar, the backward upsurge could not be ignored. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayavati further reinfor- ced this with their arrival in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of the Hindi heartland.

The Congress’s depleting social base and political decline can be seen from the fact that, had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated, electoral victory would have eluded the party even in 1991. The Congress, to compensate for its losses, could not replicate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strategy, though it was not totally averse to promote “soft” communalism. But in its efforts to steal the communal thunder, the Congress further alienated the minority and secular constituencies. For the first time, the Congress had to cope with the absence of a charismatic leader and a cohesive social agenda to deal with the electoral compulsions of the Nineties. Perhaps, Arjun Singh’s move to bring in Subhash Yadav was meant to resurrect the Congress’s depleting base in the Hindi heartland.

Gone were the days when the inclusion of the backward classes could be ensured by merely waiving user charges for state services on items like electricity. In Madhya Pradesh, which has a low water table, the power subsidy was very high. But after almost two decades of this policy, the state subsidy was no longer sufficient to draw in the votes of the other backward classes. They now wanted to be in the political centre-stage.

Arjun Singh’s actions in 1993 signal an acceptance of the OBC reality, which Digvijay Singh failed to realize even in 2003. His pre-election promise of free electricity in the run-up to the recent assembly elections, failed to ensure their bulk support. Digvijay Singh, groomed in the ideology-free political school of Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda, substituted hard political strategy with a “techno-bureaucratic” mode, implemented with a handful of trusted civil servants.

In the assembly elections of 1998, “onion” prices had brought unexpected dividends and, in the process, ground realities had been papered over. In 2003, Digvijay Singh’s attempt to steal the ethno-religious agenda of the BJP failed. The BJP, on the other hand, tamed the lion in its own den, by raising the question of “good governance”, of its record in electricity, roads and water. It was so sure of the failure of “governance” in Madhya Pradesh that it did not even replicate the Gujarat strategy of ethno-religious mobilization.

In fact, Digvijay Singh’s image as a “reform messiah”, built up by loyal bureaucrats, proved to be his undoing. The BJP, with Uma Bharti at the helm, had an “organic” leader of the OBCs in the state, which proved to be more successful electorally. Guided by these very considerations after it had won the 1998 assembly elections in Rajasthan, the Congress ignored entrenched feudal interests and opted for a backward caste as chief minister of the state. In Chhattisgarh too, this strategy was repeated. It was this, in retrospect, that partially halted the party’s complete rout in the current assembly election in both the states.

Going by the economic indicators, the reforms process has succeeded in its objectives. But what about the implications at the state-level' Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have performed very badly, but two other BIMARU members — Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — have performed reasonably well. Madhya Pradesh, which had grown slower than the average in the Eighties, accelerated significantly in the Nineties. This result was attributed to the success of the reforms initiated by Digvijay Singh.

Earlier, state-centric development and electoral populism could go together, but with economic liberalization, political parties in India have found themselves forced to rework their function. This is the principal crisis confronting the state and party system.

At the pan-Indian level, there are sections ready to own the reforms — specially entrepreneurs who had not benefited from the earlier licence raj and the cast Indian diaspora. But it is not always possible to put the burden of change on a political party. Sometimes entrenched interests make opportunistic demands, like that of the fifth pay commission’s salary revision, which may have a devastating effect on the Centre’s fiscal deficit. While it is easy to identify the advocates of the reforms agenda at the national level, it will be difficult to find similar groups at the state level. Ultimately, it is these who give legitimacy, not only to work out regional economic strategies but also to work out winning electoral combinations.

Very few state parties that have pursued “reforms” could win assembly elections. N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and S.M. Krishna in Karnataka are the two exceptions who have not only showcased their reforms achievements but have also displayed their ability to win elections. In both states, there is a social base to own the reforms and where a combination of various factors has triggered regional-level industrialization and created a new class of “regional” entrepreneurs. Even before the Centre initiated its reforms, these powerful regional economic groups were clamouring for a federal market structure and more autonomy. When reforms were ushered in, they were the natural regional constituency to uphold this agenda.

Unfortunately for Digvijay Singh, the absence of a powerful group of regional capitalists in Madhya Pradesh could not act as a votary for reform or as a catalyst in the present assembly elections.

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