The Assembly elections to the five states of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa were projected to be the biggest electoral test in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress and the BJP, the two biggest all-India parties, both had significant stakes in these elections. The results show that while the Congress has emerged as the biggest loser, the BJP has not gained much either. Uttar Pradesh, where both the Congress and the BJP were hoping to improve significantly upon their 2007 positions, has produced the biggest setback for both these parties. While the BJP’s tally has been reduced to 47, the Congress could win only 28 seats, losing heavily even in places like Raibareli and Amethi, the pocket boroughs of the Gandhi-Nehru family.
The NDA’s surprise victory has come from Punjab, where for the first time in the state’s electoral history, an incumbent government has been voted back to power. But this could happen on the basis of an improved performance by the Akali Dal, which succeeded in increasing its tally to 56 seats, just three short of the majority mark in the state Assembly. The BJP’s presence came down from a record 19 seats in the outgoing Assembly to a more modest 12 seats. Clearly, it is the BJP which had to bear the brunt of corruption charges against the Akali-BJP government. The Congress blames its unexpected defeat on flawed choice of candidates, which led to rebel candidates damaging the party’s prospects in several places, and the rise of the Punjab People’s Party in Malwa region which walked away with sizable chunks of anti-Akali votes.
In Uttarakhand, the BJP managed to do a high degree of damage-control by replacing the widely discredited and notoriously corrupt CM Mr. Pokhriyal on the eve of the polls, bringing back the erstwhile CM Mr. Khanduri. The BJP fought the poll with the slogan “Khanduri zaroori hai” (Khanduri is necessary), yet it finished one short of the Congress tally of 32 with Khanduri himself failing to retain his seat, which is widely attributed to infighting within the BJP. The Uttarakhand Assembly remains tantalisingly hung where three victorious Congress rebels, three MLAs of the BSP and the lone winner of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal are now expected to have a decisive say in the emerging power equations in the state.
The two other small states that went to polls in this round – Goa and Manipur – have produced clear verdicts. The Congress government in Goa had been thoroughly discredited on account of corruption, illegal mining and growing influence of a handful of Congress families in the economy and politics of Goa. For the first time, the BJP succeeded in winning a clear majority in the state, expanding its base among the traditionally pro-Congress Christian community as well. In Manipur, the Congress retained power with more than two-thirds majority; what was interesting was the emergence of the Trinamul Congress as the second largest party with as many as 7 seats in the 60-member Assembly. Mamata Banerjee deftly exploited the anti-AFSPA sentiment of the Manipuri people, visiting Irom Sharmila before launching her high-profile campaign, even as her own government in West Bengal continues to spearhead Operation Greenhunt against the fighting adivasi people of West Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, which was widely predicted to emerge as the biggest claimant for power, secured a comfortable majority, ending speculations of imposition of President’s Rule in the state or the compulsion of a Congress-Samajwadi Party tie-up. The outright majority secured by the Samajwadi Party in these elections has been as surprising as was the BSP coming to power on its own in the previous election. The two successive election results indicate a growing trend of polarisation between the two dominant regional parties even though the two big all-India parties retain their presence and newer parties continue to emerge and make their presence felt in various parts of this big state. Comparisons have accordingly begun to be made between the electoral political patterns in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, but it must be remembered that unlike the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the regionally dominant parties in Uttar Pradesh – the SP and the BSP – are not products of regionalism.
There has also been a lot of media hype about the so-called ‘generational metamorphosis’ of the Samajwadi Party, the term ‘dynastic succession’ apparently being reserved only for the Gandhi-Nehru family. But the hype already stands exposed with SP goons letting loose violent assaults on journalists, dalits and supporters of other parties in different parts of the state. Bourgeois political analysts and the corporate media always go overboard in their attempts to legitimise and even idolise new regimes as epitomes of ‘democracy’ and ‘development’. But real life does not take long to unmask these new regimes and shred their pretentions. Whether it is Nitish Kumar in Bihar or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal or earlier Mayawati in UP, popular expectations have been shattered everywhere and the people are back on the path of struggle for their basic interests and rights.
Uttar Pradesh has been witness to massive corporate land-grab even as vast sections of the people languish in crippling poverty and unemployment. If the youth have rallied around the SP in a big way, it is not because of any ‘charisma’ of Akhilesh Yadav, but because of the SP’s promise to provide jobs and unemployment allowance. In the run-up to these elections, employment exchanges in UP have recorded a surge in the numbers of young people seeking jobs in the state and that tells us what has moved the youth. It is significant that neither the Congress attempts to hoodwink Muslim voters with election-eve promise of insultingly low levels of reservation nor the BJP’s dreams of harvesting Hindu votes by stoking anti-reservation prejudices have worked in UP. Basic issues like land, employment opportunities, accountability of public expenditure and dignity and security of the common people have relegated caste and communal prejudices considerably to the background.
Trends in Assembly elections are determined primarily by state-specific contexts, but the overall situation in the country also has a bearing on elections in major states. The election results have clearly revealed a popular anti-Congress mood of the electorate across the states. Equally evident is the lack of credibility of the BJP. If the Congress is now likely to find it increasingly difficult to run the show at the Centre and control the UPA coalition, as of now, there is little prospect for the BJP to attract more support and expand the NDA net either. The renewed rise of the SP in UP coupled with the restiveness of combative UPA allies like the TMC or NCP has revived speculations regarding the prospect of a non-UPA non-UDA third front or federal front. But we must remember even a loose federal front needs a centre and as of now no single non-Congress non-BJP party or leader within or outside the UPA/NDA folds seems to have reached that level of strength or acceptability.
The message of these elections therefore is clearly twofold – while both the UPA and NDA will face pressures of political realignment, the situation is ripe for intensification of popular struggles on the basic and burning issues facing the people. The outcome of the Assembly elections must be seen in conjunction with the popular participation in the February 28 strike. As a weakened Congress and a weakened UPA get ready for the budget session of Parliament, the fighting forces of the working people must also get ready for a showdown with the regime and fight hard for a reversal of all pro-corporate policies and for a check on corruption and soaring prices.