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Reading the results right

March 05, 2003 15:14 IST

Now that the results are in, are there any broad conclusions we can draw from all the recent polls?

To my mind, there is one glaring effect that stands out: the decline of the two principal 'national' parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. This may seem an odd inference to take given the success of the latter in Himachal Pradesh, but it is true nonetheless.

Let us begin with the BJP. The polls have been an unmitigated story of woe for it. It performed badly everywhere, not just in Himachal Pradesh, but also in the by-election, notably in Uttar Pradesh.

Of course, there are some circumstances beyond the party's control, such as the anti-incumbency factor. But the BJP cannot get away from the fact it tried its best to commit suicide given the infighting in the party. As if Prem Kumar Dhumal and Shanta Kumar badmouthing each other were not enough, rebel candidates were present in a quarter of the constituencies.

Once upon a time, the BJP prided itself on its image as a disciplined, corruption-free group. The lack of the former virtue was all too apparent. And what should worry the party even more is the Congress succeeded in convincing the electorate of the alleged venality of the Dhumal ministry.

Moving on, the BJP also put up a poor performance in the country's largest state. Uttar Pradesh was once the fortress of the party. Yet, it did badly in the Gauriganj and Haidergarh by-elections. What should prove particularly galling is that the Haidergarh seat was held by former chief minister Rajnath Singh before he moved to Parliament. For good measure, the party has also lost by-elections in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The bottomline is it has taken just two-and-a-half months for the euphoria of Gujarat to be wiped out. Is this because the party could not bring together all like-minded forces as it did with such success in December? What exactly does the party stand for today in the public mind? These are questions the BJP ignores at its own peril.

Now, let us turn to the Congress. How much can we read from its victories in Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya? The former owed as much to the BJP's death-wish as to the Congress' own efforts. Tripura continues to be a Left Front bastion, and Nagaland has been lost. And worst of all is Gauriganj...

As I wrote in this column last week, this assembly seat forms part of the Amethi Lok Sabha seat. It was held by the Congress. Its loss is a slap in the face for Sonia Gandhi personally, not just a loss for the party. What does it say for the Congress boss that she cannot win a poll in her backyard?

The decline of the Congress was underlined by the result from Satankulam in Tamil Nadu. From 1947 to 1967 the state was ruled by the Congress. Thereafter, it became an ally of one of the two Dravidian parties. Conventional wisdom had it that whichever of the two – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam -- had the support of the Congress would win the poll. That theory has been turned on its head in Satankulam.

The DMK chose to 'boycott' the by-election. This was a transparent ploy which fooled nobody, a signal to its supporters to back the Congress candidate. AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa accepted the challenge, spending an unusual amount of time to campaign. She won handsomely, a sign that the AIADMK simply does not require the Congress any longer. Sonia Gandhi's party has only a couple of Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu, but can it afford to lose even those?

Assembly polls and by-elections are notoriously unreliable indicators, but I think the latest ones are straws in the wind. It is up to the two national parties to prove they are not diminishing powers.

T V R Shenoy