| The funereal and the celebratory marked the political divide in Delhi as the election results of Punjab and Uttarakhand poured in. At the heartbreak station that was 24 Akbar Road in Delhi, there was no party factotum in the vicinity to make sense of the devastating loss, as if the band of general secretaries who were so quick with glib explanations for the Ottavio Quattrocchi extradition fiasco the previous day had suddenly run out of spin. There were just too many debacles to explain-and not enough words left to build a make believe. In Parliament, a grim-faced Sonia Gandhi sounded wearily fatalistic when she said the results were "expected". And that could not have made it bearable. |
As the Congress president sank in despondency, her counterpart in BJP, Rajnath Singh, drove down to 11 Ashoka Road like a freshly-minted conqueror. As he distributed sweets and soundbites, the suddenly rejuvenated BJP workers began whispering about the magic of the Rajnath effect. The party has won almost every election it has fought since the Thakur took over: the Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra civic polls along with by-elections in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The latest results have taken the tally of nda-ruled states to 10 while the Congress total has come down to 13. The gap is fast closing and Rajnath is confident of another win soon. "The results will have a positive effect on Uttar Pradesh as well," he promised.
The Congress doesn't even want to think of Uttar Pradesh as it is yet to recover from its disastrous attempt to foist President's Rule in the state. The Samajwadi Party was quick to join hands with the NDA to take on the Congress over the Quattrocchi issue. The last thing it needed was a drubbing at the Assembly polls, even if it was an "expected" defeat. The party may not have been entirely wiped out in Punjab and Uttara-khand, but what some Congressmen call a "respectable" defeat is no consolation. The victory in Manipur, too, does not make up for the loss of the two northern states. Party spokespersons have admitted that inflation was one of the factors that contributed to the humiliation. The Congress policy of minority appeasement has added to its list of wrongs. The elections saw the urban voter, who had drifted away from the BJP in the 2004 polls, return to the party.
|The BJP gains from inflation and the minority appeasement policies of the Congress. |
|A weakened Congress will be more vulnerable to the dictatorial demands of its allies. |
The loser has been put on notice by the allies as well. The CPI(M) said, "The electoral setbacks have a relevance for the Government. The Congress should draw lessons from this defeat." The comrades, already incensed by the earlier Article 356 threat in Uttar Pradesh, came out with a list of pro-people recommendations as well, with anti-inflation measures at the top. The RJD was more informal in its protest. Party MPs walked into Sonia's room in Parliament. "I don't understand this GDP-UDP," Lalu Prasad told a startled Congress president, "please do something to control the price of daal-sabzi (vegetables)."
The first casualty of the election results, though, will be Manmohan Singh's reformist agenda. It is not just the UPA allies, but even Congressmen who are reading the recent results as a warning sign for the Lok Sabha polls if issues like price rise go unchecked. Sonia had already voiced her concerns about the SEZ policy and FDI in retail. A loss in Punjab, the farmers' bastion, has not helped the party's attempts to fashion it in a pro-farmers image. Manmohan's own image has taken a beating as the prime minister concentrated his campaign in Punjab, trying to sell himself as Punjab da puttar (son of the soil). Now Congressmen recall how as prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao lost ground amongst his own partymen when he lost Andhra Pradesh in 1994. The whisper campaign has already begun. Emboldened by the party's loss, even someone as discredited as Natwar Singh has started taking potshots at the Congress president, calling her an "electoral liability". A vulnerable Congress strengthens dictatorial allies like the Left and detractors like the Samajwadi Party which will ensure that Congress doesn't get to appoint its candidate in Rashtrapati Bhavan in July.
As the Congress struggles with its spell of misfortune, the BJP is riding high. Privately, Rajnath is confident that the party will cross the 200-mark in Uttar Pradesh and win the next round of polls in Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The Rajnath style of giving functional autonomy to state leaders paid off in Punjab and Uttarakhand. It is likely to work in the coming battles too.
The UPA Government is caught between the liberal agenda of the PMO and socialist demands from 10 Janpath and the Left. Hours after the results, the BJP held an hour-long parliamentary board meeting celebrating its victory. The Congress was stunned into silence.
Amazing, considering that the Hindi heartland is fast slipping out of its hands, and it is getting quite obvious that the vote-catching magic of the paramount leader is on the wane-and the leaders in the states can hardly guard what were once Congress citadels. Sonia perhaps knew it was coming. Her campaign in Punjab and Uttarakhand was hardly as high profile and compelling as it should have been. Manipur was an easy contest for the Congress, but for Sonia, the tiny northeastern state was as important-maybe more-as the other two. The party is limping toward more danger zones, Uttar Pradesh and beyond, and its anxiety is aggravated by intimations of mortality. "It is bad time to be a Congressman," said a more realistic general secretary. Well, it is the right time to be Rajnath Singh.