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12 November, 2013

A hyped poll exercise

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Assembly elections in five states, which the media has described as a semi-final or dress rehearsal for the 2014 parliamentary polls, have just begun.

Figuring in the four-week poll calendar are the Hindi-speaking heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi and the tribal northeastern state of Mizoram. Voting, which takes place in five phases, began on Monday and will end on December 4. Counting of votes in all the states is scheduled for December 8.

The four Hindi states have traditionally witnessed virtual direct fights between the Congress, which heads the present government at the centre, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, its main challenger in the coming parliamentary elections. However, the description of these elections as a semi-final or dress rehearsal for the Lok Sabha elections is far-fetched.

For one, only five of the 25 states are involved in the current exercise. Although on a few occasions — as, for instance, in the 1977 elections in which Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime was ousted and the 1980 elections in which the first non-Congress government at the centre was thrown out — the people have voted like one man, the political landscape differs widely even among the Hindi states.

For another, voters often approach national and state elections differently. They take into account the fact that in the parliamentary elections they are deciding who should rule at the centre and in the assembly elections they are deciding who should rule the state.

The BJP had retained control of Chhattisgarh in 2008 with a convincing majority in the assembly. However, its vote share was only 40.39 per cent, and the Congress was close on its heels with 39.88 per cent. In MP, it had a comfortable lead with 38.09 per cent of the votes as against the Congress party’s 32.85 per cent.

The Congress was the winner in Delhi state and Rajasthan in 2008. In Delhi, the Congress polled 40.31 per cent of the votes and the BJP 36.84 per cent. In Rajasthan, they polled 36.92 per cent and 35.60 per cent respectively.

In all the four, the BSP was a small but significant factor, with its share of votes ranging from 6.12 per cent in Chhattisgarh to 14.05 per cent in Delhi. Whether that party has registered any growth in these states since then and, if so, at whose cost are questions for which answers are not readily available.

With corruption charges seriously denting the image of the central government, the Congress is finding the going tough in all the states. In Delhi state, where it has been in power continuously since 1998, and in Rajasthan, where it is completing a five-year term, it has also to contend with the anti-incumbency factor. The BJP expects the whirlwind campaign by its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and the Congress party’s image problem to help it overcome the anti-incumbency factor in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it has been in power for a decade.

Opinion polls have forecast BJP victory in all states except Delhi, where a hung assembly may give the fledgling Aam Admi Party of anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal the opportunity to decide who should form the government. While this has raised the BJP’s morale, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s decision to contest from two constituencies indicates that the party is not as confident as is assumed.

Both the Congress and the BJP are facing dissensions with leaders dissatisfied with allocation of party tickets raising the banner of revolt. Judging by experience, rebels who win the elections may help the parent party if it falls short of a majority.

A good performance by the BJP in the four states is sure to give Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature a boost. Yet, it will be foolhardy to assume that the outcome of these assembly elections is a reliable indicator of the shape of the next national government.

The four states together have only 62 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. The largest Hindi states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together command 120 seats in the house, present a totally different picture from these states. In UP, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party were way ahead of both the Congress and the BJP in the last parliamentary and state elections, and in Bihar the Janata Dal (United) led all the rest.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 12, 2013.

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