Hard Options, Soft Choices

Will the efforts of the Congress and the emerging Third Front to convert the Modi vs Others battle into a ‘development vs secularism’ one succeed?  

AK Verma Kanpur

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is again at the centrestage of the coming parliamentary elections in early 2014. A large number of the 80 Lok Sabha seats are at stake. There are four major players: the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), along with marginal players like Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western UP. For the last two decades, the key political players in the state had been the SP and BSP, but in the general election of 2009, the Congress was back with a vengeance, winning 21 seats (SP-23, BSP-20, BJP-10) that surprised everyone.

This time, the BJP appears to be heading for an electoral comeback in UP. And the credit for that must go to Narendra Modi, its primeministerial candidate who has marginalized the issues of caste, religion and mandir, and brought development to the front.

The Congress obviously must be worried. The worry comes from clear signals emanating from electors for a change; change from the pricerise, corruption, scams, non-inspiring leadership, mishandling of defence-related issues relating to Pakistan and China, and a plethora of others.

Overwhelmed, the party has lost the confidence to capitalize on its flagship programmes, which any other party would have sold to the electorate at a premium. Programmes like the mid-day meal, MGNREG, Pradhanmantri Gram Sadak Yojna, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna, National Rural Health Mission, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, and so on, instead of bolstering the Congress’s case, has given it a bad reputation due to rampant corruption.

If some OBCs shift to the BJP and Dalits and Muslims move to the Congress, the SP is bound to be the biggest loser in 2014

The Congress must also be prepared to face the anti-incumbency factor as the UPA II has been in office for a full two terms. But its 2009 poll performance in UP is an additional liability. In that election, it lost six sitting MPs and retained only three seats (Amethi, Rae Bareli and Kanpur) out of the nine that it had won in 2004. Yet, the party captured 18 new LS seats, taking its tally to 21. Repeating that appears to be a Herculean task.

Then, there is the issue of selection of right candidates for 2014. In the last LS elections, the extraordinary performance of the Congress did not necessarily translate into victory. The personal connections of the Congress candidates were more important, proved by the party’s poor performance in the 2012 assembly elections in which candidates’ constituency visibility and voter connection were very poor. In spite of that, the party registered accretions in vote share in almost all social denominations and sub-regions of state. Many ‘backward-class’ voters, who had drifted away from the BSP in the wake of the Babu Singh Kushwaha episode (most backward caste BSP leader expelled by Mayawati), could not connect to Congress candidates, notwithstanding their preference for Rahul Gandhi, and voted for the SP that appeared to be winning.

The Congress has also failed to distinguish between the goodness of collective leadership in the party and the evil of multiple power centres in the government. Indian voters have a strong sense of approval and disapproval. They have probably not reconciled with the existence of multiple power centres and a meek Prime Minister whose domestic image does not synchronize with influence and authority that India commands at the global level.

With Modi successfully converting the LS elections into a Presidential-style contest, and the Congress bringing on Rahul to take him on without realising whether he understands the nitty-gritty of such a contest, the electoral battle is transforming into a contest between two prime ministerial candidates. Rahul not only refuses to gauge the potentials of his rival, but also refuses to rise to an image befitting the stature of a future prime minister.

For a comeback in UP, the Congress would need to expand and consolidate its Muslim and Dalit constituencies. After Muzzaffarnagar, Muslims are drifting away from the SP not only in UP but also elsewhere. Muslims feel that, with the Akhilesh Yadav government, when it comes to awarding contracts in the PWD, mining of sand, or plum postings in districts and so on, only Yadavs are favoured, whereas they are getting only a notional sense of empowerment.

But, where will the Muslims go, especially those who might be disenchanted with the SP after the Muzzaffarnagar riots? Perhaps they might choose the Congress over the BSP for two reasons: one, Muslims would like to vote for a party that has a direct bearing on the formation of the national government; two, the BSP appears marginalized due to Mayawati’s shift to Delhi, distancing herself not only from UP but also from Dalits. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013