Thursday, February 29, 2024

Gujarat elections crucial to set stage for 2014

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Congress could benefit from Modi’s latest gaffe
By Harihar Swarup

Poll in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are not ordinary elections for they will set the tone for the battle of hustling in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi next year scheduled to be held at almost the same time. Himachal Pradesh may be a small state with only 68 seats but the debate there has come to represent larger issues—the use of land, forests, infrastructure, employment etc. The most prominent here is the Congress’s Virbhadra Singh, former chief minister of the state who recently stepped down from the union cabinet after following charges of corruption. He has fought through party ranks to emerge as the face if the Congress in the hill state.

The BJP in the state seems to be struggling with factionalism: there is bitter rivalry between the former chief minister Shanta Kumar and the incumbent, Prem Kumar Dhumal. An unfazed Nitin Gadkari campaigned in Himachal and that too, paradoxically, on corruption issue. But L K Advani cleverly avoided the mention of corruption, choosing to speak mystifyingly of electoral reforms instead.

Narendra Modi campaigned vigorously but a nasty remark against Shashi Tharoor’s wife, Sunanda Pushkar, had an electrifying impact on women voters particularly. If they vote en bloc against the BJP, its goose in cooked. The Congress is sure to derive benefit.

Virbhadra Singh, anxious to shake off the allegations in Delhi, undertook the election tour, speaking to packed houses. This election could reveal how the fifty shades of corruption play out politically.

The Gujarat elections, where 226 will be contested, involves one of the most polarizing figures in Indian politics—Narendra Modi. For all the attempts at an image makeover, he has been unable to shake of the 2002 carnage. If he is re-elected this time, it will have larger implications for both the Congress and the BJP. For the BJP, ignoring his claim as the party’s prime ministerial candidate may become very difficult.

The Congress, which uses Modi to gather his detractors around itself, will suffer a loss of face if it proves unable to stand up to him in Gujarat. For his party, Modi seems to have concluded that to focus his attack on national leadership of the Congress, will give him to big advantages. For one, it will deflect attention from local issues. It will also help him grandstand within his own party, play up the idea that the Congress is fatigued and that he is the top leadership’s most bitter foe.

The Congress keeps the discussion focused on local gaps and failure. So far, it has managed to void to use maut ka soudagar rhetoric, perhaps because it offers few electoral gains.

Five years ago the BJP had pulled off convincing wins in both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. And, yet two years later, a jittery UPA returned to power at the Centre in 2009 with increased—better than the numbers if it had given itself, in fact.

Now that the same state polls are again looming large at the horizon, it is useful to remember that their meaning and influence can be over-read. Having said that, the battle in the two state may both be typical of the multiplex dramas that Indian’s political stories have become, in as much as it is mainly bi-polar, but it offers a watchable plot.

These elections will test the soundness of the political instincts of the Congress and the BJP. They will also show the extent to which a media saturated discourse can influence political choice. The last few months have seen much furore over the coal-block and 2G spectrum allocation, with institutions like the CAG pointing figures at the government, allegations traded between politicians and liberally in the media.

During the monsoon session, the BJP had managed to hold up Parliament by agitating about corruption at the very top—even trying to implicate the Prime Minister in the irregularities in coal allocations. The BJP might have hoped that the hype around corruption would take down the Congress—as in 1989, for instance, when it was much stronger. Now, with a high decibel campaign being waged against its own party President, Nitin Gadkari, the same hype has come back to haunt the BJP.

These two state elections may help us gauge if Indian voters still separate “local” or state issues and National issues while making electoral choices, and hence vote differently in nation and state elections. Perhaps, the local and the national have drawn closer now, and it could be that a single mood is reflected in municipal, state and national elections. (IPA Service)

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