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Why the NDA lost

June 08, 2004

Now that psephologists, political analysts, economists, sociologists, psychologists and even sexologists have lent a hand in conducting the post-mortem of the BJP-led NDA's defeat in Elections 2004, will please allow this old man to have his two-paise's worth?

At the outset, let the myth be buried that the Congress won the people's mandate. With 73 percent of the valid votes rejecting the Congress, with 65 percent going against its combination with pre-poll alliances, and with the number of seats won as a proportion of the seats contested being higher for the BJP than for the Congress, it's Harry Potter fiction to believe that the Indian nation wanted the Congress to rule over its destiny once again.

The second myth that needs burial is that Sonia Gandhi 'renounced' the prime ministerial crown. The colour photograph spread over pages 20 and 21 of the India Today issue of May 31 torpedoes that lie 20,000 fathoms under the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal. That photograph shows Manmohan Singh saying something seriously to the President of India, who is smiling while watching Sonia Gandhi quite some distance away; her grim face shows tautness, nay, trepidation, what with her right hand in the front tightly clutching her left hand's knuckles.

That pose of hers doesn't represent renunciation, dear readers, but rigor mortis. What exactly transpired earlier between the President of India and someone who is only the president of a political party is not known, though something did indeed happen. The truth will be known only years hence when the trumped up 'renunciation' will be exhumed.

With the dirt swept away, let us get on now to the core reasons for the BJP-led NDA's defeat.

1. Failure to use surplus food stocks

Perhaps the single biggest failure of the NDA government was its indifference to the millions of tonnes of foodgrain always lying (rotting?) in Food Corporation of India godowns even as thousands of farmers, reeling under drought in several parts of the country, were crying for food. The tragedy was that Indian exporters were merrily allowed to export wheat, sugar, and other food items in this scenario.

The NDA government should have inducted a retired general and a team of ex-Army Supply Corps officers/jawans to organise a foolproof seasonal programme to distribute food almost free to the poor throughout the country with the help of not district bureaucrats, but various NGOs with good credentials, such as the Ramakrishna Mission.

Even the construction of additional small flour mills with packaging units attached could have been thought of to convert grain into highly subsidised flour packets for a cluster of villages. Such a scheme under the civil supplies and rural development ministries, if publicised well, would not only have been an excellent example of good governance, but of humane governance, and would have brought tremendous goodwill to the NDA. The financial liability of this programme just wouldn't have been criticised either by the media or by the Opposition.

2. Wrong timing of the election

While Atal Bihari Vajpayee was initially reported to be keen to let the NDA complete its full term till October 2004, the Islamabad Declaration of January 6 with its fallout that serious discussions on Jammu and Kashmir would begin in June and be carried forward in August appear to have compelled him to agree to the party (L K Advani?) line of having the election earlier. He probably thought that attaining peace with Pakistan would be a powerful election point in the NDA's favour while, on the other hand, a possible breakdown of the scheduled foreign minister-level talks in August (and its consequences) would be a big disadvantage in campaigning for elections if held in October.

As a result, the NDA government lost the golden opportunity to present its regular 2004 budget, which, finance minister Jaswant Singh later told us, was to usher in a second Green Revolution. That budget, with a strong bias towards agriculture -- largely neglected since 1999 -- would have been an excellent platform for the NDA to win over the farming community. In the event, bringing the 2004 election forward blanked out Jaswant Singh's proposals for agriculture, while the plank of peace with Pakistan didn't click with either the ordinary or the poor voter who worries about little else apart from his own survival; the intelligent, middle-class electorate, remember, always suspects that Pakistan doesn't really want peace with India.

Even the call for an early election wouldn't have hurt so much as it did if, after the 13th Lok Sabha was dissolved on February 6, the actual voting had started in a month or so. But the Election Commission took its own time to finalise the election schedule and the first polling day was fixed for April 20 -- 75 days after the NDA government had decided on a mid-term election. This long delay enabled the Congress to finalise its alliances and its advertising counter to the Shining India campaign, and evolve the strategy of launching Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Clearly, the NDA government -- and the Vajpayee-Advani duo -- had overlooked the Election Commission's thinking on a mid-term election.

3. Skewed election campaigning

Almost all the campaigning was on the NDA government's overall development results, such as the government's Golden Quadrilateral scheme, political stability, peace in J&K, peace with Pakistan, high international status, credit cards for farmers, etc on the one side, and running down or making warnings about the Congress on the other. Towards the end of this campaign, the BJP even openly begged Muslims for votes, thereby upsetting lakhs of its conventional supporters.

Bread and butter issues concerning the states in the Union were almost totally neglected during active campaigning. Instead of this concentration on the national scene (about which the common man, sadly, does not bother), the focus should have been on economic development in each city and state where campaign speeches were being made. With facts and figures, it should have been explained that if the development in the state concerned had been unsatisfactory, the blame lay on that state government's poor financial management and non-use/misuse of funds allocated to them by Delhi. (Such statistics are easily available with the finance ministry in Delhi.)

A glaring example of this skewed strategy was Jaywantiben Mehta who contested to retain her South Bombay seat. Like other BJP candidates, her campaign centred on Vajpayee's leadership and about the country's economic advancement. It took Arun Shourie to tell us Mumbaiites, about a week before polling day, what even those in Mehta's constituency didn't know.

It seems Mehta had personally approached Vajpayee to get an exemption from the Electricity Act for the BEST Undertaking in Mumbai. The law laid down that profits from an electricity company could not be used to cross-subsidise another of its activities. Mehta securing the exemption meant the BEST could continue to subsidise its bus service, which issues some six million tickets every day. This exemption gave Mumbai's entire bus-commuting population a relief of Rs 1,440 million that might otherwise have had to be levied by way of an increase in fares. But Mehta lost to a 'fresh, young face' of the Congress who repeatedly campaigned that she had done precious little for Mumbai.

4. Failure to look 'different' to the public

Though the BJP had set out to proclaim itself as different from other parties, there was nothing that put this stamp on its leaders' style of governance as far as the common man was concerned. For instance, one can't remember a single gesture from Prime Minister Vajpayee to indicate to the masses that he was willing to do away with old, flippant customs. If he had stopped his ministers from seeing him off at the airport prior to international tours, it would have been a gesture that would have been noticed and welcomed. Ditto with ministers receiving him at the airport on his return from foreign trips.

His wielding of swords, shooting of an arrow at the Ramlila festival, wearing of various headgears -- Muslim, Assamese, Kolhapuri, etc, etc -- was a cheap gimmick carried forward from Nehru's times. His iftaar parties and attendance of such parties thrown by others was also a carry-forward of old hypocrisies. He could easily have refrained from practising all the silly gestures and explained it by saying he wanted to be pragmatic.

Another carry-forward from previous governments was attendance of far too many inaugural functions. The top leaders should have refrained from being susceptible to photo-ops instead of spending time with rural folks.

And, of course, there was the matter of George Fernandes. Having resigned after the Tehelka affair though he was not in a single frame of that video sting operation, he should not have been re-inducted into the council of ministers until the commission of inquiry on the subject was over. Instead, he ought to have been engaged in co-ordinating the NDA's affairs, offering advice to the allies and suggesting corrections to their course.

Part II: BJP needs killer instinct

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Arvind Lavakare

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