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Electoral Jolt

Electoral Jolt

The results of the elections held to the Maharashtra and Haryana Assemblies and the by-elections elsewhere in the country have brought to the fore what the voters think about the relevance of the Opposition. At no point in Indian elections, barring the first and the second ones in 1952 and 1957, did the ruling party enjoy so much advantage as the BJP enjoyed this time.

The Opposition was nowhere in the picture. Take the case of the main Opposition party, the Indian National Congress. It was in a state of disarray with its inability to find a President after Rahul Gandhi deserted the post. All it could do was to bring an ailing Sonia Gandhi back to the leadership of the party.

She did wonders within the limited time available to her. The number of seats the party won in Maharashtra and Haryana is a testimony to the political strategist in her which helped her rule the country by proxy for two whole terms. True, the party did not get a majority in both states. However, the voters made it clear that it should fulfil the role of an Opposition which is vital to the functioning of democracy.

The results are a clear rejection of the idea of a Congress-free Bharat that the BJP has been promoting, especially after the return of Modi in the 2019 May elections. The people have rejected outright the “one country, one party, one leader” slogan that the BJP has been promoting. The results show that the people want a “one country, multi-party” democratic system. In Gujarat, the Congress and the BJP shared equally the six seats for which they contested.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had succeeded in giving an impression that they were the ultimate in determining what the country needed. In other words, nothing mattered more than their combined brilliance. Many even believed that the two could win elections for the party. Small wonder that the exit polls favoured a sweep for the BJP in both states.

The so-called pandits of elections also fell for the theory that the BJP would have a landslide victory. In May last, the BJP swept the polls in Haryana where the Congress could not win a single seat. In Maharashtra, too, the situation was much better this time. Five years ago, the BJP and the Shiv Sena fought against each other. Yet, the BJP was able to form a government of its own.

This time the BJP and the Shiv Sena fought together. Yet, the combine could not achieve a better victory than the last time. True, they have gained a majority but it is not the kind of majority that they wanted. The BJP would no longer be in a position to dictate terms to the Sena. Rather, it would have to mollycoddle the Sena leadership if it wants to be in power in the state.

In short, the BJP cannot expect to have its own nominee as the Chief Minister for the next five years. It would be a surprise if the Sena does not demand the post of Chief Minister for at least half the term, i.e., for two and a half years. The elections have thrown up a Sena, which is more powerful than the BJP.

After nearly 20 years, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party was able to prove the point that he has greater credibility in Maharashtra than the Congress. His party could win more seats than the Congress. But, then, the Congress was hardly in a fighting mood with even its state leader joining the BJP.

In Haryana, the BJP was claiming that it would win not less than 75 seats out of the total 90. In the end, it could win only 40 seats. It can take consolation in the fact that it could emerge as the single largest group. What the Congress achieved is truly remarkable. It was Sonia Gandhi’s foresight that revived the fortunes of the party.

To understand what she did, one only has to remember what had happened to the party. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who had ruled the state for ten years, was on the verge of leaving the party and floating an outfit of his own. That is when Sonia Gandhi called him on phone and entrusted him with the responsibility of leading the party from the front. He did not disappoint her.

Hooda was able to strike a chord with the Jats who returned to the Congress fold helping the party win 31 seats. It is even in a position to form a government with the support of the non-BJP parties. Whether it happens or not, Manohar Lal Khattar lost his moral authority to form a government. Of course, one does not underestimate the BJP’s ability to manipulate the situation to its advantage.

What has the BJP done in the state? Of course, Khattar was able to introduce a law making cow slaughter more heinous and more punishable than man slaughter. He was even toying with the idea of strengthening further the anti-cow slaughter law to enable to police to visit homes and establishments to check whether beef was stored or not and arrest the persons concerned.

However, what has happened is that the law has deprived the farmers of the little money they used to earn when they sold their unproductive cattle to the butchers. The BJP’s zeal for cow protection was at the cost of the farmers. The growing disappearance of the cows to give place to the buffaloes is a reflection of the BJP’s wrong farm policy.

Small wonder that many of the ministers in Haryana fell by the wayside in this election. The state is no longer the bastion of the BJP. The people have rejected the party and if it forms a government by resorting to the Aya-Ram-Gaya-Ram politics of the past, it will be a negation of the popular vote. The people want it to remain in the Opposition.

Just as Modi and Shah were proved not that invincible, the results were also a reflection of the popular mood about certain national issues. The Modi-Shah duo tried to ask the simple question whether the voters supported the action in Jammu and Kashmir. They thought that everyone would say yes to them. Far from that, the voters proved to them what they felt about the “abrogation” of Article 370.

They may have agreed with the government decision on Kashmir but they certainly did not approve of what the government has been doing in Kashmir — keeping the whole Kashmiris in a jail-like condition. That is certainly not what the people approve of. They want the people of Kashmir to enjoy as much freedom to express their opinion as the people in the rest of the country.

The BJP can no longer claim that whatever it did in Kashmir, like converting the state into Union Territories, have the mandate of the people. The people realise that if it could declare a state into a Union Territory, it could do the same to another state like, say, West Bengal and Kerala. India is as much a Federal state as it is a unitary one. The vote re-emphasises this characteristic of the Indian state which is inviolable.

Ever since Modi returned to power and Shah was inducted as the number two in the government, there has been growing intolerance in the country. The BJP has been using the administrative organs like the CBI and the enforcement directorate to harass Opposition leaders. Even those who consider P. Chidambaram as corrupt would not agree to his incarceration on the basis of a statement made by a woman who is accused of murdering her own daughter!

What’s worse, the government appoints the judge who sends the former finance minister to jail to a post-retirement job. The status of the judiciary is in a shambles now with former Supreme Court judges raising questions about its impartiality. The people want checks and balances in the system, not unlimited freedom to the likes of Modi and Shah to do what they like.

The results are not just about who wins or loses. It is also about the political culture prevalent in the country. The people do not tolerate everything in the name of nationalism. A special law — against triple talaq — to deal with a very minor issue is not a substitute for good governance. What the people expect is equal treatment to all the citizens without compromising whatever special rights the minorities — both linguistic and religious —have  under the Constitution. 

The results of the by-elections in several states have also not been to the liking of the BJP. In Kerala, the Congress has only itself to blame for what happened. It should have given opportunities to the young talents in the party when the Lok Sabha elections were held.

Instead, it allowed some of its sitting MLAs to contest for the Lok Sabha. There was absolutely no need to field  Muralidharan and Adoor Prakash in the Lok Sabha elections. The voters did not approve of the policy and have rejected the Congress candidates who were fielded to fill those seats. It is the Congress’ misadventure that failed in Kerala.

Despite all the communal propaganda and the flexing of muscles, the BJP remained consigned to the dustbins in Kerala. What’s worse, it lost its position in a constituency like Vattiyurkavu which the party considered as its citadel. Neither Article 370 or its so-called “robust nationalism” pay any dividend to the party. Negativism is not something the people can appreciate, more so when it is promoted by a party.

The few seats the BJP won in Uttar Pradesh would not have fallen in their kitty if the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party were together. In other words, UP can easily be wrested by the combined Opposition if it shows the will to do so. The state is ripe for plucking by the combined Opposition. The BJP is not the only party which suffered. Its partner in Bihar also suffered when the RJD won two seats there.

The lessons of the elections can be summarised as follows: The voters cannot be taken for granted by any party. No politician, whatever the post he or she holds, should believe that the people blindly trust him or her. Empty rhetoric on nationalism is not a substitute for good governance.

The people want peace, law and order, jobs and shelter, not grandiose programmes like Howdy Modi in distant Houston. They also do not want lynching or hatred of any people on the basis of their caste or creed. In short, they want peace and tranquility to prevail at all times.

The results provide a good lesson to the Opposition as well. For instance, the Congress need not be despondent. The people expect it to play the role of the Grand Old Party. It should not believe that the people have deserted it.

Instead, the people want the party to be reorganised as a party capable of providing an alternative leadership to the BJP.  When the voters of Delhi found an alternative in the Aam Aadmi Party, they voted massively for the party reducing the BJP to an auto rickshaw party in Delhi.

The relevance of Opposition unity had never been greater. Even if all the parties do not come on a common platform and fight the BJP unitedly, any united action by the Opposition will deter the government from taking anti-democratic steps. The voter wants the Opposition to play its rightful role to keep the ruling party on tenterhooks. In short, the voter cannot be taken for granted. Good governance is what it expects from the government. Otherwise, the voter knows how to handle the government in the next elections.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 28th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 44)