The term “semi-final election” was first heard in Bharatiya Janata Party circles prior to the 1991 general elections. Many party strategists then argued that the expansion of the party’s base after Ayodhya would set the stage for a final push in 1996 or thereabouts. In hindsight, the calculations appear to have been remarkably prescient, since the BJP, after a false start in 1996, did indeed have its own prime minister in 1998.
Unfortunately, the term “semi-final election” simultaneously entered the realms of media superficiality, and lost its context and resonance. Like the profundity that “the next 48 hours are crucial” which is solemnly bandied about in a political crisis, a “semi-final election” has become a cliché comparable in its meaninglessness to the “enough is enough” outburst that follows every terrorist attack.
The recently concluded elections to five state assemblies (the sixth, in Jammu and Kashmir, is still under way) were billed as “semi-final elections” for no other reason than the fact that they were the last elaborate democratic exercise before the general elections in April-May 2009. At a pan-Indian level, they were meant to test the political waters on three possible counts. First, the four states in the Hindi belt (Mizoram was an oddball) would provide loose indicators of where the two national parties stood. Second, it would be a test of the possible relevance of the Bahujan Samaj Party outside its Uttar Pradesh stronghold. Third, it would enable the national parties to take a call on which national issues would cut through the natural preoccupation with local governance. It is important to not lose sight of the clearly defined but limited national focus of the state polls, particularly after the media blitz that followed the carnage in Mumbai. The suggestions, made in the heat of the moment, that the assembly elections were somehow a referendum on terrorism were pure hype.
When the elections were announced, the Congress was very hopeful that anti-incumbency would allow it to wrest Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan from the BJP. The party had initially given up Delhi as lost but sensed a chance after the BJP’s choice of chief minister-designate was followed by middle-class revulsion. Viewed from the BJP corner, the elections had more than a local significance. In 2004, the four states contributed 57 members of parliament to the BJP’s overall tally of 138 seats in the Lok Sabha. Any significant slippage would, therefore, bode ill for the National Democratic Alliance’s chances of replacing the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.
The mechanical extrapolation of assembly votes to Lok Sabha constituencies suggests that the Congress has been able to narrow the gap but not overtake the BJP. In 2004, the Congress won just 15 of the 72 Lok Sabha seats; judged by this week’s results, its tally may rise to 30, leaving the BJP with 42 seats. If the Lok Sabha elections turn out to be an aggregation of regional contests rather than a vote with a clear national focus, the portents for the Congress are not terribly encouraging. With Karnataka, Bihar and Punjab out of the UPA grasp, and simultaneous assembly elections scheduled for Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the Congress may be forced to look to a firm alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to enable it to retain its status as the single largest party. As things stand, that honour may go to the BJP without necessarily giving the NDA a clear majority. If anything, the outcome in the four states — which are unique because they involved a straight Congress-BJP fight — has ensured that the Lok Sabha elections are very competitive. Both the national parties believe they are in position to retrieve lost ground in the coming months.
This may not be good news to the BSP, which saw the present round of assembly elections as a road-building exercise for Mayavati’s national ambitions. In terms of popular votes, the BSP performed exceptionally well in Delhi, polling some 13 per cent; and judged by the yardstick of actual victories, it won seven seats in Madhya Pradesh and six in Rajasthan. The BSP has not yet acquired the critical mass to successfully translate ground support to victories. Its role, therefore, remains that of a spoiler. However, it is important to note that its disruptive potential is not confined to denting the Congress alone. In Madhya Pradesh, particularly the Gwalior belt, the BSP definitely harmed the Congress but in Rajasthan its vote-cutting marred the BJP’s prospects in a significant number of constituencies. In Delhi, there is some basis to the belief that anything between five and eight per cent of the anti-Congress vote was gobbled up by the BSP, to the detriment of the BJP.
The BSP’s varied performance in the states prompts two conclusions. First, except in Uttar Pradesh and, to some extent, Punjab, the BSP is still overly dependent on disgruntled notables from other parties to give it electoral clout. This brings into the party a large measure of incoherence and a significant turnover of personnel. The ideological complexion given to the BSP by angst-ridden liberals seems largely illusory. Second, given its amorphous nature outside its strongholds, the BSP is an unguided missile. Logically, it should have dented Congress support the most but as the outcome in Delhi showed, it was the BJP that was the big casualty of its sizeable protest vote. The BSP is likely to remain the proverbial wild card in general elections.
Finally, the outcome in the four states has prompted the instant media conclusion that neither the economy nor terrorism is likely to be decisive in shaping voter preference. The prognosis is, like most things, at best a half-truth. In Delhi, the BJP’s high-profile bid to use the Mumbai attack to manage a last-minute swing in its favour failed. It prompted the facile conclusion that the “terror card” doesn’t work. However, the Congress insisted that the Mumbai attack played a role in preventing it from coasting to a more conclusive victory in Rajasthan. It is possible that the Mumbai attack could have played out differently in Delhi and Rajasthan. But a more worthwhile conclusion is that anti-terrorism as a political platform works best when it complements existing trends. Its impact is still insufficient to provoke a complete U-turn and disrupt all pre-existing allegiances.
Additionally, a robust security plank has a real impact on voters when inspirational speeches and sloganeering are backed up by a credible face. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that BJP’s V.K. Malhotra could echo Narendra Modi’s rhetoric and still be credible. In short, there was a significant mismatch between the BJP robust anti-terrorism message and its projected face. This dissonance allowed more conventional issues to prevail.
This is not to suggest that the electorate has rejected the BJP’s four-year campaign against the UPA’s indifference to the terrorist threat. It simply means that the BJP must now establish that its leadership has the ability to make India safer. If the Congress tries to project the prime minister as a tough warrior against Pakistan, it may end up painting him as a Neville Chamberlain rather than a Winston Churchill. If L.K. Advani is to impress Indians that he can lead the charge against the jihadis, he has to try and re-acquire some of the Sardar Patel inheritance he has shed over the years. Alternatively, he could enlarge the leadership plank by including as a running mate someone who has the ability to complement his sobriety with a dose of credible impetuosity.