Thursday, May 29, 2008

Karnataka poll results: there is cause for worry

The Bharatiya Janata Party's coming to power in Karnataka on its own has strengthened its hopes regarding the next Lok Sabha elections. This is a development which gives cause for worry not only to the Congress but also others who view the BJP’s comeback with anxiety.

Keen observers knew that the BJP would improve its position in Karnataka. But no one expected it to be in a position to form the government without relying on other political parties. Like Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, The BJP earned the eight to form a single-party government, by making a performance that exceeded everyone’s expectations. The credit for these parties’ unexpected triumph does not really belong to them. It belongs to the voters of the two States. It looks as though they had decided in advance that a hung legislature must be avoided.

Parties pick candidates and plan campaign strategy on the basis that voters are led by such factors as caste, religion and narrow, local issues. But they possess a democratic sense that enables them to rise above such factors when necessary. Their rejecting not only the Congress but also Indira Gandhi in 1977 and welcoming both back after three years prove this. In both those elections, Kerala acted differently from the rest of the country. There is a moral in this: too much enlightenment, like too much cleverness, may lead one astray.

The liberal approach of the Election Commission enables many political parties today to pose as national parties. By getting a foothold in a southern State, the BJP has truly earned the right to be called a national party. But it may not be easy for the party to replicate the Karnataka victory in the neighbouring States. This is because conditions in the other States are quite different from those of Karnataka. If any State offers scope for the BJP to grow fast, it is Kerala. The moves made by the State’s secular parties, including the CPI (M), hoping to make temporary gains, may well help realize the Sangh Parivar’s dream of a Hindu vote.

A two-party system has been in place in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for some time. The latest election results indicate that Karnataka, too, is ready to move in that direction. It needs to be noted that, like the BJP, the Congress too bettered its position in the State. While the BJP’s strength in the legislature rose from 79 to 110, the Congress’s rose from 65 to 80. Both grew at the expense of the other parties. The worst sufferer was H.D. Deva Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular). Its strength fell from 58 to 28. No other party has representation in the new house.

The CPI (M)’s central leadership had identified Karnataka as a place where conditions are favourable for the growth of the party, whose influence is now limited to three States. It had also asked the Kerala unit to take an interest in party affairs there. A Malayali who has been active in the trade union sector in Bangalore for a long time was recently elected as the State party secretary. The beginning has not been good. The party lost even the one seat it held in the last Assembly. The poor performance of Deva Gowda’s party and the extinction of all other parties is a bigger blow to the party than the loss of that seat. When the BJP and the Congress gain strength and the other parties disappear, the CPI (M)’s hopes of a third bloc collapse.

The Lok Sabha elections are not due until next year. There was speculation some time ago that the Congress may go to the electorate sooner instead of waiting for the term of the house to expire. Recently the Election Commission disclosed that it is ready to hold the Lok Sabha elections any time after August 31. The question before the Congress is whether or not waiting for a year will do it good. If it decides to wait until the term of the present house runs out, it will have to face four Assembly elections before that. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi are the States where Assembly elections are coming up. In all these States, the contest is essentially between the BJP and the Congress. Of the four, Delhi alone is with the Congress now. It does not have the ability to make a dramatic advance in any of the States.

The issue that frightens the Congress most is price rise. The parties in power at the Centre and the State usually blame each other on this issue. Actually this is not a problem which can be solved entirely by the Central government and the State governments, acting alone or even together. If oil prices continue to rise in the international market, commodity prices will continue to rise in the country.

An issue like price rise can upset electoral calculations. But the Congress is not able to face elections with confidence now not because of problems like this but because of its organizational weaknesses. Sonia Gandhi has been able to avoid division within the party. But she has not been able to strengthen the party. In fact, she has not even taken any fruitful step in that direction. Those around her are people who lack popular support and wide contacts. The Congress cannot get out of its present plight until it creates circumstances conducive to the emergence of able leaders at the lower levels through the democratic process.
Based on column 'Nerkkazhcha' appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated May 29, 2008

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