State elections: Fair ballot, rivetting battles expected (Comment)

Mayawati’s statues and her election symbol of elephants carved out of stone have been covered, the Congress’ pro-Muslim sops have been shot down, the officials believed to be biased in favour of the ruling party have been transferred by the Election Commission and bundles of cash meant for distribution among voters have been seized. The country is ready for another electoral bout among political parties under the commission’s stern, impartial gaze, which promises that the contests will be free and the outcome fair.

It is the certainty about the results reflecting the popular mood which has facilitated the task of forecasts since the earlier ugly phenomenon of booth-capturing, impersonation and forcibly keeping at bay large groups of voters, mainly in the Hindi heartland, is no longer prevalent. As is known, this remarkable cleansing of the electoral system is the contribution of T.N. Seshan, who was chief election commissioner from 1990 to 1996. Since his time, the commission, like the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office, has been a truly autonomous body.

As a result, perhaps the most crucial of the ‘cow belt’ states, Uttar Pradesh, will see another riveting battle between the two old regional adversaries, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), and two ‘national’ parties with limited local influence, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with all of them accepting the results without making too much of a fuss.

In all likelihood, the anti-incumbency factor, which led to the SP’s ouster in 2007, may be felt by the BSP this time, largely because of the latter’s neglect of significant development projects that make a difference to the lives of the poor and marginalised, reminiscent of a similar indifference shown by Lalu Prasad during his 15 years as Bihar chief minister.

In both their cases, the belief that a neat stitching of caste combinations – Mayawati’s Dalit-Brahmin rainbow coalition and Lalu Prasad’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) alliance – was considered enough to cross the electoral Rubicon.

But, ever since the Janata Dal-United’s Nitish Kumar showed in Bihar in 2005 that a focus on development, law and order and social welfare was the only real guarantor of success, parties like the BSP, which have failed on this account, have become vulnerable. In Mayawati’s case, the inordinate extolling of her own self via statues has made her a figure of ridicule to the intelligentsia while how impressed the Dalits have been will only be known when the results are out.

Interestingly, the Janata Dal-United and the BJP, which are allies in Bihar, will be on opposite sides of the fence in Uttar Pradesh, diminishing the latter’s chances of getting a sizeable chunk of the other backward caste (OBC) votes via the Janata Dal-United and, therefore, pushing it further down in the electoral stakes.

For the Congress, it is a do-or-die battle for the party’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi. If he falters yet again, as in Bihar in 2010, he will have to reconsider his tactics. But, if the Congress can repeat its 2009 performance in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul will be the frontrunner for the prime minister’s chair in 2014.

If anti-incumbency is expected to hit the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, it is also likely to unsettle the Akali Dal in Punjab, which has tended to vote for the Akalis and the Congress in alternate elections. The Congress’ hopes of staging a comeback have been buoyed by its success in the 2009 parliamentary polls, when it won eight of the 13 seats while the Akalis won four.

Since then the Akalis have been shaken by the departure of their former finance minister, Manpreet Singh Badal, who accused the government of leading the state towards financial ruin by following populist policies, and the resignation of two ministers of the BJP, an ally of the Akalis, on bribery charges.

Punjab is not the only state where the local BJP leaders have been under a cloud. In Uttarakhand, the party had to hastily remove Ramesh Pokhriyal from the chief minister’s post in favour of B.C. Khanduri, who held the office earlier, in view of the corruption charges faced by Pokhriyal’s administration. In fact, there is little doubt that the BJP would have lost power if Pokhriyal had remained in office. Even now, memories of his time in power may damage the party’s prospects.

Malfeasance may also affect the Congress’ chances in Goa, where a mining scandal has tainted Digambar Kamat’s government. The fact that the chief minister has been in charge of the mining ministry for a decade hasn’t helped his image. The 2007 elections saw a close fight between the Congress, which won 16 of the 40 assembly seats, and the BJP, which won 14. However, the Congress formed the government with the help of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which won three seats. This time too, the alliance evidently hopes to pip the BJP to the post despite its rickety nature, which saw the NCP break ranks in 2007 and 2008.
In Manipur, the Congress may gain from the differences that have cropped up between two constituents of the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) – the Janata Dal (United) and the RJD – with the enmity rooted in Bihar between these two parties souring their relations in the northeastern state.

(14-01-2012-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])