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The biggest losers are ...
May 12, 2006
The headlines are devoted to the winners on the morrow of elections. But it may be just as instructive to cast an eye on the losers.
So who -- in my opinion anyway -- registered the greatest failures in the assembly polls that are just over? In all fairness, the BJP must top the list. Barring 10 seats in Assam, it has drawn a blank in every other state that went to the hustings.
It could be, and indeed has been, argued that this is because of bad timing, with several states where the BJP really isn't a factor holding simultaneous polls. In the next eighteen months or so it will be a different story with Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and so on having assembly elections -- without the Left Front being a factor in any of them.
Sorry, but that is not good enough. The BJP is supposed to be India's principal Opposition party, and if it isn't yet a player in major states one must demand to know why not. Just to put things into perspective, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, and Pondicherry elect 116 Lok Sabha MPs. What are the BJP's chances of returning to power unless you woo these constituencies, especially given that it is faltering elsewhere?
Much more is expected of a party that has been around for twenty-five years of existence and which has governed India for six years. The tale of the second loser on my list begins with Constituency No 1 in the Kerala assembly, namely Manjeswar. (The Election Commission numbers the seats from north to south, putting Manjeswar at the top of the list.)
The seat has been won this time by C H Kunhambu for the CPI-M. That would have been bad enough given that the sitting MLA was the Muslim League's Cherkalam Abdullah (local government minister in the United Democratic Front cabinet). What is truly shocking that the Muslim League leader was pushed into third place, behind the BJP's M Narayana Bhat.
Granted that Manjeswar is on the border of BJP-friendly Karnataka, how on earth could this have happened in a traditional fortress of the Muslim League?
The Muslim League, then, easily takes the second spot on the losers' table. The Muslim League was, let us remember, the second largest component in the United Democratic Front, the 16 seats that it won in the 2001 election making second only to the Congress. Five years later the party stands slashed in half, with only seven MLAs in the newly-elected Kerala assembly.
Actually, you need not go back to 2001 to understand the scale of the Muslim League's slide. Two years ago, in the 2004 general election, the Muslim League provided the sole consolation for the United Democratic Front as the Left Front swept the other seats. E Ahamed of the Muslim League thus became the only Lok Sabha MP from Kerala in the Manmohan Singh government. Everyone had then assumed that the Muslim League would save the United Democratic Front's face in the assembly polls no matter how badly the Congress fared. So how did the Muslim League come to this pass?
I do not for a moment believe that this is an indication of growing BJP strength in Kerala. (It has in fact failed to garner even 5 per cent of the votes, a decline from 2001.) Rather, I think this was a case of Muslim voters registering their unhappiness both with the Muslim League and the Congress, an anger so great that it wasn't enough to boot out a sitting MLA but to humiliate him by pushing him below the BJP candidate.
One reason for the Muslim League debacle was the high-handed manner of the party's leadership and the frequent allegations of sleaze levelled against it. As in the Bihar assembly polls of 2005, this was a sign that the Indian electorate is sick and tired of leaders who shame the people who voted for them.
But there is another reason for the Muslim League's poor performance, and this involves the third name on the losers' list, namely the Congress. A major reason for the lacklustre performance of the party -- not just in Kerala but also in West Bengal and even in Assam -- is because the Muslim voter is drifting away from it. This has massive implications. What happens if the pattern is followed in places such as Uttar Pradesh? (Not even the most ardent Nehru-Gandhi devotee is claiming that Sonia Gandhi's success in Rae Bareli will augur in a new era elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh.)
Why is the Muslim voter angry with the Congress? One thing I noticed in Kerala was the extent to which foreign policy was influencing even assembly polls. The perceived pro-American tilt of the Manmohan Singh ministry became an election issue even in remote hamlets. (Kerala must be the only place in the world where a small fishing community defiantly renamed its village 'Saddam Beach'!)
The CPI-M -- and for that matter the DMK in neighbouring Tamil Nadu -- was quick to seize the opportunity. CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat went so far as to give a well-publicised interview in which he claimed that the Marxists would reconsider its support to the Congress in Delhi if it continued to support President Bush's policies.
The claim was absurd but it went down well in Kerala. Tamil Nadu's voters were more kind to the Congress, but don't forget that the Congress was in alliance with both the DMK and the CPI-M there. I have not studied the West Bengal and Assam results at length as yet, but everything suggests that Muslim voters drifted away from the Congress here as well. The Marxists mopped them up in West Bengal, while in Assam -- where neither the Marxists nor the DMK is a factor -- a new party emerged to 'protect minority interests.'
This new force pulled away just enough voters to deny the Congress the majority that it enjoyed in the last assembly. Is there anyone else who deserves a place at the losers' table? Technically, there is Jayalalithaa. But, from the perspective of the 2004 general election when the AIADMK lost every seat it contested, this has been an amazingly good performance from Jayalalithaa. She has, almost singlehandedly, won about one-third of the seats, forcing the DMK into the uncomfortable position of running a minority government or a coalition.
With time on her side, it is far too soon to count the AIADMK out. At the end of the day, what worries me most is that large tracts of India are falling out of the reach of the national parties, namely the BJP and the Congress. (The CPI-M, while technically a 'national' party, is actually a loose collection of regional parties in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura.)
I am no fan of the Congress but I would have been happier had the Congress done better in Kerala and Assam. It is not a healthy sign when India's largest minority turns its face away from India's largest parties.
T V R Shenoy