Meaning of the mandate (India)

The November-December elections to six state assemblies in India turned out to be, perhaps, the most critical political test since the 2004 general election that sent the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) packing and brought the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to the helm. As Himal went to press, the election process in Jammu & Kashmir was yet to be completed. However, the results that are in, from Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram, have left the BJP shell-shocked, the Congress triumphant, the left expecting more, the Dalit icon Mayawati on a new high and the other parties somewhat confused.

The elections, held in phases over weeks, were billed as the 'semi-finals' that would reveal trends in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, due in the first half of 2009. Pre-election, the Congress party had only the Union Territory of Delhi while the BJP ruled in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Mizoram was held by the Mizo National Front. The left, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had only months before withdrawn its support to the ruling UPA, which sustained its majority in Parliament by winning over Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and a clutch of individual MPs. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a rising force, had fielded candidates in all of the seats in the polls.

As the battle lines were drawn, the Congress was on the defensive and, at best, looking to exploit anti-incumbency in the three BJP-ruled states. It was also almost reconciled to losing Delhi, where two-term Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was pitted against the BJP's ageing V K Malhotra. The BJP, with L K Advani as prime minister-in-waiting, conducted itself as though it were engaged in an unstoppable march towards forming the next government at the Centre. As events panned out, however, the Congress trounced the BJP in Delhi (where Dikshit won a record third term), Rajasthan and Mizoram. The BJP, meanwhile, held on to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, though the latter was a close call.

In retrospect, the BJP seems to have been defeated due to its overconfidence and cynical exploitation of the Bombay attacks of 26 November which had exploded on the scene during the emotive final stages of the election. Soon after the attack, the BJP stood with the UPA government by taking the position that national security took precedence over party interests. This forbearance proved momentary, however, after which the BJP, especially Advani and other Hindutva leaders, went on the offensive against the Congress by holding its policies (including its purported 'appeasement of minorities') responsible for the terror in Bombay. Such accusations went further in full-page newspaper advertisements that goaded the people to vote against terror by voting for the BJP.

Regional power
As the elections were a two-party fight between the BJP and the Congress in Delhi, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, the BJP can now no longer be complacent about the upcoming national elections. It is shaken and, by its own admission, "depressed and despondent". Hence, it is also unsure of how to go forward, and what strategy to adopt to contain the unexpected upswing of the Congress Party, which by its reading should have been in an abject state. However, the BJP's loss may not necessarily be the Congress' gain. Although the BJP's chances for the general election have been hammered – with Advani possibly being assured of indefinitely continuing as PM-in-waiting – the Congress, too, is faced with an uphill task.

Powerful regional parties such as Jayalalithaa's AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh and H D Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka have joined hands with the CPI (Marxist)-led left. Such a flank could isolate the BJP, and also cut the ground from under the Congress in the four southern states. The BJP, which had boasted that regional parties would find it irresistible after the assembly elections, is now worried that those on the fence may opt for the emerging 'Third Front' being cobbled by the CPI (Marxist), or simply bide their time.

For the unaligned parties, it is open season. The biggest gain of the elections goes to the BSP and Mayawati. Her vote share is up 7 to 12 percent in all of these states; she opened her account in the Delhi assembly and the BSP's steady progress could well further erode the Congress vote base, especially after Mayawati's recent assertions of distance from the BJP. Particularly in view of the economic downturn, it is hard to see how the Congress and BJP will fare in the parliamentary elections, but it now appears that Mayawati might just emerge as the biggest winner.

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