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Sonia is not an ogre
October 20, 2004
The Indian voter is perverse. There are times it votes for someone or something and there are times it takes refuge behind negativism. The touch-and-go assembly election in Maharashtra did not produce a winner. Like the general election a few months ago, the voters seemed clear only about what they did not want.
In normal circumstances, Maharashtra was an election the incumbent Congress-NCP government could not have won. Just about everything argued against it. Its five-year record in office was, by universal reckoning, pathetic. Short of communal riots, everything that could go wrong went wrong for it.
For the Opposition, the anti-incumbency cocktail was heady and perfect. There was drought, suicides by farmers, financial profligacy, indifferent development and high-profile corruption involving important ministers. There was not even an inspired local leadership by way of compensation.
Maharashtra, in a nutsehell, provided a textbook setting for a decisive anti-incumbency verdict, if not a wave. In the coming weeks, the Shiv Sena-BJP leadership will have to reflect on how they managed to transform what seemed an unavoidable victory into a narrow but clear defeat.
Taking refuge behind arithmetic won't suffice. The Congress-NCP base has traditionally been strong in Maharashtra but the Congress parivar has never been invincible. Its hold over Marathwada, Vidarbha and the tribal belt of northern Maharashtra has been progressively slipping. And even in the Western Maharashtra sugar belt, the likes of Sharad Pawar no longer have a monopoly over electoral success. And Mumbai and the Konkan belt have traditionally been regarded as citadels of the Shiv Sena and BJP.
The position of the Sena-BJP in Maharashtra was not similar to the NDA position in Tamil Nadu where the alliance arithmetic was decisively weighed against it. Nor was it like Bihar where strong anti-incumbency is offset by identity politics centred on caste. The saffron alliance did not fight the election as a permanent underdog. Both combinations were as much dependant on a floating vote as the other. In the end, the Congress-NCP secured a lion's share of the unattached vote, most notably in Greater Mumbai and other urban centres, and narrowly prevailed.
Why did the floating voters prefer the Congress-NCP to the Shiv Sena-BJP, despite the pathetic five-year record of the state government? The answer, it would seem, lies in a combination of three factors.
In this election, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance tried to go against the very instincts that had defined it in the past. In opting for an over-pragmatic, non-ideological thrust, the combine aimed at preventing a secular consolidation in favour of the Congress. In the process, the campaign became virtually bereft of issues. It became an overwhelmingly non-political campaign. The slogan of parivartan that the Shiv Sena-BJP proclaimed in their television advertisements lacked meat. There was no big picture.
In attempting to enlarge the Shiv Sena's appeal, Uddhav Thackeray, for example, sounded distinctly NGO-ish. On his part, the BJP's Pramod Mahajan seemed out of sorts. His style was over-individualistic and, at times, he even conveyed an impression that his real battle was against his party's central leadership than with the Congress-NCP.
However, the shortcoming of the Shiv Sena-BJP doesn't answer the question as to why the Congress-NCP succeeded in harvesting the bulk of the floating vote. It has been suggested that the last minute appeal to elect a government that was in harmony with the UPA regime at the Centre worked wonders. Given the fact that this is a ruse used by all incumbent ruling parties at the Centre since the time of Indira Gandhi, this seems too facile an explanation. Yes, the Congress-NCP did have a cutting edge in the last days of the campaign but this was not because the average voter was tempted by largesse from the Centre or Manmohan Singh's promise to pay an annual visit to Vidarbha and transform Mumbai into a Shanghai.
The NDA has become accustomed to underplaying the importance of Sonia Gandhi whereas the Congress has naturally overstated it. Regardless of Sonia's impact in the general election, there is some evidence to suggest that the Congress president has acquired a larger-than-life persona after she refused the prime ministership last May. There is no doubt that her alleged act of renunciation has struck a chord among people accustomed to viewing politicians as power-hungry individuals.
Maharashtra was the first electoral test for the Congress after the general election and the outcome suggests that Sonia not only galvanised the faithful but also succeeded in wooing a chunk of the floating vote. Her role in blunting the force of anti-incumbency was seminal.
True, the NCP got a few more seats than the Congress. However, to conclude that the electorate somehow distinguished between the innate anti-foreigner instincts of the Maratha leader and the sycophancy of the Congress would be self-serving. The Congress-NCP alliance worked in tandem and both benefited from Sonia's national stature.
This is a message that the Opposition, particularly the BJP, may be loath to accept. However, they would be wise to not disregard it altogether. For too long, the BJP's anti-Sonia campaign has been shrill, even hysterical. This is not cutting any ice with the electorate. It is making the BJP seem churlish. Pragmatic considerations should make the NDA treat Sonia as just another politician, not as an ogre. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa understood this immediately after the general election. After Maharashtra, the BJP should follow suit. The time for taking pot shots at Sonia will come in due course.
While the Congress will be justifiably gung-ho after Maharashtra, the BJP needs to dispassionately examine its strategy of being all things to all people. For the party, the immediate future doesn't lie in mindless confrontation and agitations that neither excite the faithful nor leave a mark on the people. Nor does it lie in boring the people with excessive doses of Hindutva ideology.
Every political twist and turn depends on a specific context for success. The recipes of the 1980s and 1990s don't find favour with today's India. The demands of today are for strategic retreat and responsible opposition politics. In the short-term, the BJP has to concentrate on its parliamentary performance. This means accepting the verdict of the electorate with good grace. There may be some deflated egos in the process but that is for the larger good.