General elections are all-India affairs, with citizens in 28 states taking part to elect a new Parliament. On the other hand, elections to legislative assemblies have a particular resonance for the citizens of the state, or states, going to the polls. Some state elections, however, are of national significance. The first such was the Kerala elections of 1957, when the ruling Congress was defeated by the Communist Party of India. Earlier in the same decade, the communists had launched an armed insurrection against the Indian State, seeking to replace it with a one-party dictatorship. They gave up arms and came overground to fight the first general elections, held in 1952. This the Congress comfortably won, but the CPI emerged as the single largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha.
Its victory in Kerala in 1957 consolidated the communists’ image as the only serious challenger to Congress hegemony. This may have been why a coalition of anti-communist forces — the Catholic Church, the Nair Service Society, and the Congress itself — organized mass protests against a legally elected government, whereupon it was dismissed by the Centre. In the midterm elections, held in 1960, the Congress regained power in Kerala.
Till Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, the Congress held sway all across the country. In the general elections of 1967, the first held with no Nehru to lead its campaign, India’s oldest political party still won power at the Centre. But it was routed in Tamil Nadu (then known as Madras) where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won a comfortable majority, riding a wave of anti-Congress, anti-Central government, and anti-North Indian sentiment provoked by an attempt by New Delhi to impose Hindi by administrative fiat. This was the Congress’s most decisive defeat (it had long considered Madras a stronghold), but in 1967 it also lost power to an alliance of dissident Congressmen and communists in West Bengal, and to other anti-Congress coalitions in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. It was now said, with some wonder and astonishment, that one could travel all the way from Delhi to Howrah and not pass through a single Congress-ruled state.
These losses in 1967 prompted a major reorientation in the Congress. The prime minister then, Indira Gandhi, previously not known for her strong political convictions, now repositioned herself as a socialist. She nationalized the banks, abolished the privy purses and called an early general election, campaigning under the stirring slogan of “Garibi hatao”. This allowed the Congress to win a massive majority at the Centre, and also to recapture several state assemblies in the North and East.
Indira Gandhi’s victory at the polls in January 1971 was followed by an equally emphatic victory on the battlefield in the last month of the same year. Some credit for the independence of Bangladesh accrued to the Mukti Bahini, some to the Indian army, but much, or even most, was reserved for the Indian prime minister, who showed her human side in providing a home for millions of refugees and her political side in provoking a war she knew her side would win. These twin victories imbued her with a sense of arrogance, and even invulnerability. In the past the Congress was supposed to have a divine right to rule; now that right, she thought, had passed on to a single family. She was wrong — for, in the next general elections, held in 1977, the Congress was trounced at the Centre and in many northern states as well.
The next state elections to have a national significance were held in 1983. In that year, the Congress lost power for the first time in Karnataka. More striking still was its loss in Andhra Pradesh, where too it had hitherto been undefeated. Now, after an insult levelled at the state’s chief minister by Rajiv Gandhi, a famous filmstar named N.T. Rama Rao started a party to restore Telugu pride, damaged by decades of Congress misrule. His Telugu Desam Party had no history, no organization, no money, no real ideology even. No one, least of all the English-language media, gave it a ghost of a chance. In the event, the charisma (and energy) of a single man was enough to overcome the money, history, and organizational power of the Congress. This was arguably the most spectacular defeat the Congress had suffered; for its previous conquerors, such as the communists, the DMK, and the Janata Party, were all led by experienced politicians who had a solid cadre of co-workers to organize their campaigns.
The elections recently held in Uttar Pradesh are, in this respect, a radical departure from the historical trend. Unlike Kerala in 1957, Tamil Nadu in 1967, West Bengal in 1977, or Andhra Pradesh in 1983, in this case the Congress entered the polls not as a dominant behemoth but as a party on the margins, seeking desperately to make a comeback in a state where it has had little influence in recent years. The UP elections acquired an added significance because the most important of the younger Congress leaders, Rahul Gandhi, had staked so much on its outcome. He had made it known that he regarded the UP elections of 2012 as a ‘semi-final’, a prelude to the general elections currently scheduled for 2014. In the past year, Rahul Gandhi had toured through the state, monitored the screening and selection of his party’s candidates and addressed dozens of public meetings himself.
Much was at stake for the other parties as well. The Bharatiya Janata Party had begun its rise to national prominence via Uttar Pradesh; it had been in power in the state episodically in the 1980s and 1990s, but had declined considerably since. If it were to seriously challenge the Congress at the national level it needed to make an impressive show in UP. These elections were crucial for the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party too. The latter was desperate to regain power in the state; the former, to retain power. For both parties, a good performance in these elections would augment its influence at the Centre.
The elections in UP were arguably among the five most important state elections held since Indian independence. Four parties were deeply invested in the outcome — the BJP and the Congress, for whom a good performance would augur well for their hopes to lead a successful coalition in the next general elections; and the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, for whom a winning performance would consolidate their position in India’s largest state and also allow them to play a more active role in New Delhi.
Such were the expectations of the four major players in the polls. How must each feel now that the results are in? The Samajwadi Party must be very pleased; the other three parties — desperately disappointed. The pleasure and disappointment are collective as well as individual. As an early report on the results had it, “Yadav scion up, Gandhi scion down.” From late last year, the English-language media had made much of Rahul Gandhi’s campaigning in UP, writing extensively — and often breathlessly — of his stays in Dalit homes and his visits to Jat farmers. Meanwhile, Akhilesh Yadav worked steadily away in his home state, rather than make occasional speculative visits from the safety of New Delhi. It was only in the last stages of polling that the press realized that the dehati dynast was making a far greater impact than Rahul Gandhi.
Once the exit polls made clear the extent of the Congress’s defeat, the chamchas sought to distance their leader from the result. Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid, Renuka Chowdhury, and Rita Bahuguna Joshi all blamed it on the hapless ‘party worker’. To his credit, Rahul Gandhi has accepted that he must take primary responsibility. The results are a massive setback to his party, and to him personally. Already, in states far away from UP, regional leaders such as J. Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee are seeing in the humiliation of the Congress the possibilities of a third front government in 2014.