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Reading the political tea leaves

December 07, 2013 13:09 IST

The significance of the assembly poll results will be more psychological than real for the impending parliamentary elections, says Bharat Bhushan.

Only the foolhardy or those from the blessed tribe of psephologists would dare to predict the results of the five-state assembly elections due on December 8. There is virtue in patience and excitement in the intangibles that often prove the best election forecasts wrong.

Their significance for the impending parliamentary elections will be more psychological than real.

When Sonia Gandhi entered active politics in 1998 as the Congress president, the early election victories under her leadership began with Delhi and Rajasthan. They proved to be the turning point of her career since the message went out that she could lead the party to victory. In the 15 years since she took over the leadership of the Congress, the people of India have felt her silent but determined power.

However, the general elections of 2014 promise to be a bigger challenge given her age and health, and Rahul Gandhi not coming up to expectations. It is quite possible that Delhi might prove to be the bellwether state once again, and might determine not just the political fortunes of Sheila Dikshit, but the campaign script for the 2014 general elections as well.

What will be the impact of the state assembly results on Narendra Modi? There is no doubt that victory in these states will boost his public profile, the Bharatiya Janata Party 's prime ministerial candidate. But ideally, he may want Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is a potential competitor and contender, and also happens to be, like Modi, from the backward castes, to be cut to size. A third victory for Chouhan will show that Modi is not the only wonder-boy of the BJP. In Rajasthan too, party sources admit, his ideal choice for leading the state is not Vasundhara Raje, but Om Mathur. Modi may be less threatened by a victory for Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh since it is a much smaller state.

So, the results of the state elections will have a huge psychological impact on the leaders of the national parties, but it would be an oversimplification to extrapolate these trends onto the elections of 2014.

This is a hard lesson the BJP learnt in 2004. It had won the state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in the winter of 2003. It mistakenly assumed that this would be the trend in the general elections also and came up with the ‘India Shining’ campaign, and even brought forward the elections by six months. While the BJP did well in the three states where it had won the assembly polls, it could not form a government at the Centre, making way for a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

If the BJP wins the Delhi, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elections, the only reasonable estimate it can make is about winning a large chunk of the 72 Lok Sabha seats that fall in these four states. But that number, along with an improvement in Gujarat, is not enough to draw definite conclusions about the general elections. The party would have to recover lost ground in other states.

The states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu account for 264 Lok Sabha seats but are difficult for both the BJP and the Congress because they would face multi-cornered contests here from strong local challengers. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the BJP might find it difficult to even open its account. Even the Congress cannot do well in these states without entering into local alliances. So, one cannot assume that the party that does well in the state assembly elections on December 8, will also do well in other big states.

Conversely, even if the Congress loses the assembly elections in Delhi, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, then despite the terrible demoralisation, it need not do as badly in the other states where it has a social base built over decades. Despite the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, for example, a year later the Congress was voted back into power in Maharashtra.

As the main contender for power at the Centre, the BJP will have to improve its performance in UP -- where its vote share has plummeted from the all-time high of 37.5 per cent, resulting in 52 of the 85 seats (now 80) in 1996-98, to about 17.5 per cent in 2009 and 15 per cent in the assembly election of 2012. Modi's popularity can add three to four percentage points to the party's vote share but this is not anywhere near the massive addition of 10 to 11 percentage points of popular vote to improve significantly its last tally of nine Lok Sabha seats in UP.

In Bihar, the BJP will go without an alliance partner this time. Even if it picks up a few extra seats and improves upon on its tally of 12 in 2009, a lot of seats have to be won to make a difference at the national level. Where will they come from? In Bihar, only upper caste votes cannot suffice and one does not know to what extent the Modi magic is working on the other backward classes, Dalits and Muslims. On the face of it, the party will need alliances with the parties of these sectional interests to improve its numbers significantly.

In Odisha, the BJP receives votes but has won no seats since it parted ways with the Biju Janata Dal. Modi will no doubt increase the vote share but it is doubtful whether that would result in any seats being won in a triangular contest.

In Karnataka, the BJP cannot hope to do well since it lost the assembly elections pretty badly, although they took place after Modi's anointment.

The basic problem that will confront the BJP is this: since an increase in vote share requires a social base that it lacks in many states, how will it get an adequate share? This question will haunt the BJP even after the state assembly results are out.