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All quiet as BJP, Congress wait for verdict

A K Diwanji in New Delhi | December 03, 2003 22:49 IST

Forty-eight hours after the elections ended, and with final results due in less than 24 hours, the political parties were unusually quiet in Delhi.

The nation's leading political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, did not hold their daily press briefings, most likely because they really had little to say.

What next can only be decided after seeing the results was the common refrain. The BJP and the Congress are the two main contestants in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

The question is whether general elections will follow in the wake of the assembly results, especially if they should favour the BJP.

The BJP, in a reversal of fortunes, is now hoping to grab Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan from the Congress, leaving just Delhi behind.

What set off speculation were reports that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had, while addressing the BJP Members of Parliament, told them to start work for the general elections.

The Lok Sabha elections are due in October 2004. The last elections, held 1999 in the aftermath of the Kargil war, saw the incumbent BJP-led coalition return to power even though in the 1998 assembly polls in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh was then a part of this state), and Rajasthan, the Congress had trounced the BJP badly.

But in the Lok Sabha elections in 1999 the BJP outperformed the Congress in these very states prompting political pundits to warn that the Indian voter was perceptive enough to discern between the state and the nation.

And sections of the media have already dubbed the assembly polls as the 'semi-finals'.

A BJP source admitted that there existed a section within the BJP that would like to hold the general elections soon, especially if BJP does well in the state elections.

"This faction believes the party should ride the pro-BJP and anti-Congress wave and would like elections in March 2004 in the hope that the BJP can increase its tally," he said.

But there is also a strong lobby warning against early elections and is keen to see the National Democratic Alliance government complete its term. One key reason is to make the Vajpayee government go down in Indian history as the first non-Congress government to complete its five-year term. Thus far, all non-Congress governments have lasted not more than three years.

"To be the first non-Congress government to complete five years is a very strong temptation," said the BJP source, "It will immediately end the Congress claim, made in the past, that thus far only Congress governments have managed to complete the full term. And it will forever make the BJP look extremely capable of forming a stable government and running the country whether in alliance or alone," he said.

He added the fact that the BJP had completed five years in power would in itself be a strong slogan for the next elections.

Incidentally, Vajpayee, now prime minister for over five and a half years, has already become the third longest serving prime minister of India, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and overtaking Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao, all Congress leaders.

One risk the government runs is of the monsoons failing. But while a drought can spell trouble for any government, India's abundant stock of food grains can help the NDA government overcome the ill effects of a drought.

In fact, fear of a drought was one of the factors that prompted the Telugu Desam Party government to hold the Andhra Pradesh elections ahead of schedule. Polls in Andhra Pradesh are now expected in March 2004. The TDP provides crucial support to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the Lok Sabha and a poor showing by the TDP can also cause some concern to the government.

A Congress party official said his party was ready to face the general elections anytime. "We are ready for elections to be held at any time, whether early next year or late next year," he said.

Meanwhile, with the general elections not far away, Indians can expect a soft budget higher on populism than reforms.

The BJP source admitted as much and then said it was a common phenomenon. "Some time ago, we met a German economic delegation and they also said that in an election year, the budget was soft and avoided harsh measures even if they were much needed. All democracies will have a soft budget in an election year and I am sure the same will be the case for India," he said.

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