The Bharatiya Janata Party could meet with an electoral disaster in the country's most populous State as Muslims resort to `strategic voting', mostly in favour of the Congress, and certain caste groups drift away from the party

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НазваниеThe Bharatiya Janata Party could meet with an electoral disaster in the country's most populous State as Muslims resort to `strategic voting', mostly in favour of the Congress, and certain caste groups drift away from the party
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in Lucknow

The Bharatiya Janata Party could meet with an electoral disaster in the country's most populous State as Muslims resort to `strategic voting', mostly in favour of the Congress, and certain caste groups drift away from the party.

FIVE years ago, in the Lok Sabha elections of 1999, the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh threw up a paradox. The principal political forces of the State - Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and a Congress-led alliance - were engaged in a keenly fought quadrangular contest. The BJP, which had made impressive gains in all such electoral situations after 1991, suffered stunning reverses. The party, which had won an all-time high of 57 seats in the previous Lok Sabha elections held in 1998, saw its tally shrink to nearly half, to 29. It is a similar predicament that stares the BJP in the face this time too, as India's most populous State continues with the process of completing four rounds of polling in its 80 constituencies by May 10.

The most palpable feature of the entire campaign period has been the consternation of the BJP's leadership and rank and file at the persistence of the 1999 situation and the party's frenzied manoeuvres to get ahead of the challenge one way or the other. The quiet confidence that used to characterise the actions of the various wings of the BJP in the run-up to all the Lok Sabha elections held between 1991 and 1998 is conspicuous by its absence. No party functionary across the State speaks about replicating the spectacular results of 1991, 1992 (51 and 52 seats respectively) or 1998. "It will be a great success if we are at least able to hold on to the number of seats that we got in 1999," is the refrain in BJP offices across the State.

By no means does this augur well for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ruling at the Centre. Right from the planning stages of the 14th Lok Sabha elections, leaders of the BJP and the NDA had repeatedly emphasised that it was important to increase the party's tally in Uttar Pradesh if the NDA were to return to power. Hence, the directions that went out right from the beginning to the rank and file were to go all-out. And the BJP campaign in the State does reflect this. It has been a no-holds-barred affair for the past one and a half months. Poll themes were presented in such a way as to make them appealing to different sections of society. Crowd-pullers including film stars and other celebrities were unleashed liberally. Despite all this, the dismal refrain echoes in the BJP's election offices.

Central to the BJP's difficulties in the State is a re-emergence of the social and political factors - with variations in terms of detail - that caused the reverses in 1999. Four major factors had worked against the BJP five years ago. First, a depletion of its core vote base, especially the backward caste Lodh community on account of former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh's rebellion against what he termed as the "upper-caste-oriented leadership of the party guided by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee". Second, a revival of popular support for the Congress in select pockets. Third, the absence of favourable emotive issues and the diminishing appeal of the politics of Hindutva. And last, tactical voting by Muslims in such a manner as to defeat BJP candidates.

All these factors have once again come into play, albeit with different dimensions. At the start of the campaign the BJP did make some efforts to bring back some of its core support bases that had drifted away. An exercise of this kind had led to the re-entry of Kalyan Singh into the party. He was appointed the chief election strategist in the State, even at the cost of upsetting other established leaders. But, as the campaign progressed and the first round of polling in the State concluded on April 26, the BJP realised that while a large section of Lodh voters might have returned to the party fold along with Kalyan Singh, there was substantial erosion of support from other groups that traditionally backed the party, such as Brahmins and Thakurs.

This shift manifested noticeably in a large number of the 32 seats that had polling on April 26. The trends that day indicated that the primary preference of Brahmin voters in several constituencies, including Faizabad - of which the Ayodhya Assembly segment is a part - and Sultanpur, was the Congress and that a large number of Thakur voters were inclined towards the S.P. In Gonda, Pratapagrah, Rae Bareli and Sultanpur, Rajput voters proclaimed openly their preference for the S.P. Even in Jaunpur, where Hindutva icon Swami Chinmayanand, the Union Minister of State for Home, was trying to retain the seat for the BJP, Thakur votes were divided between the BJP and Dhananjay Singh, the Congress-supported Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) candidate. According to a senior BJP leader belonging to the Thakur community, a terrible result awaits the party if this trend prevails in at least half of the 80 seats in the State.

One of the main factors that have caused the flow of Brahmin votes to the Congress is the entry of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra into active politics. Activists of the Congress claim that the entry of the new generation Nehru-Gandhis has rekindled in a sizable segment of the electorate "memories of the sacrifices made by the family for the country". "And it is natural that Brahmins are the first to return," said Upendra Mishra, a party activist from Lucknow, "because the Congress is the community's original political platform." One heard similar comments across the State. Mishra also pointed out that the BJP had been carefully trying to project the `Brahmin identity' of Vajpayee. But he is of the view that it is not as inspiring as the image of Rahul or Priyanka.

While political observers do not have a uniform opinion as to whether this shift would actually boost the Congress tally in the State from the 10 it won in 1999, there is agreement that the party's vote share will increase substantially. The primary difficulty of the Congress in converting this rise in votes into seats is the absence of a well-groomed organisational machinery in most parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The Thakurs, who have drifted away from the BJP, point to the hostile administrative measures taken against the community during the BSP-BJP coalition government, which collapsed and paved the way for the present Mulayam Singh Yadav-led S.P. Ministry. They complain that the party did not care to help when BSP Chief Minister Mayawati went on the rampage in the name of Dalit assertiveness. Raja Bhaiyya, the Thakur MLA detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) by Mayawati's government, has become a symbol of the community's protest. He has instructed his followers to support the S.P. The tactics employed by the S.P.'s own Thakur leader, Amar Singh, in the past six years or so have enhanced the growing support to the S.P. in the community. Amar Singh's manoeuvres had brought in sections of Thakurs to the S.P. even before the 1999 polls.

Interestingly, the very grievances that the Thakur community has against the BSP-led government seemed to have fortified the support base of the Dalit-oriented BSP. The party, which won 14 seats in 1999, is in contention in as many as 20 seats this time. But its repeated alliances with the BJP have caused sections of its Muslim support base to move away. Developments such as this - a lot many of them related to the minority Muslim community - are seen as silver linings in the political cloud by the BJP.

One such silver lining has come in the form of doubts about the S.P.'s socio-political commitment to the minority community's interests. The S.P. has had a core vote base among the backward caste Yadav community for over a decade. With the addition of Thakur votes to this it would have become a formidable force in terms of seats had it not been for the campaign that the party's leaders, including Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, are going soft on the BJP and the NDA. The campaign is led by leaders of both the NDA, including Vajpayee, and the Congress, including Sonia Gandhi. The S.P. leaders have had a tough time countering it.

Whatever the truth in the campaign, the fact is that it led to a depletion of the minority support for the S.P., at least in some constituencies. In many of these places the Congress has become the primary choice of Muslim voters. One of the election strategies of the BJP after the April 26 polling has been to accentuate this trend. It is alleged that the party's think tank plans to boost the Congress campaign in select seats, even through covert funding.

It remains to be seen whether these tactics will produce the desired results for the BJP. The party's campaign has been perceived by observers and the people alike as a collection of varied and sometimes even contrasting themes. The campaign started with the central national theme that highlighted the `superior' leadership provided to the country by Vajpayee, the slogans like `India Shining' and `Feel Good' referring to the perceived economic growth, and a new appeal to the minorities to turn towards the BJP as the government it led was mending fences even with Pakistan.

However, with the growing realisation mid-way through the campaign that the slogans were not effective enough, sections of the party changed tack. Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani himself represented this change when he tried to revive the Ram mandir issue when his Bharat Uday Yatra passed through Ayodhya and nearby areas. But this had no impact even in areas which were once considered bastions of the Hindutva ideology. In fact, almost all the fanatical leaders of the Hindutva movement - Swami Chinmayanand in Jaunpur, Swami Adityanath in Gorakhpur, Ramvilas Vedanti in Amethi and Vinay Katiyar in Lakhimpur Kheri - are facing difficult battles.

So, when a return to Ayodhya was seen to be not working, there was another flip-flop, to the original agenda. Finally, after the first round of polling icons of rabid Hindutva such as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati were pressed into service in select seats where "Hindutva has a greater emotive appeal and a polarisation can be achieved at short notice". Simultaneously, the Atal Himayat Committee, a self-proclaimed forum of Muslim intellectuals, began touring the state advertising the steps taken by Vajpayee for minority welfare. Certainly, these constant alterations in campaign themes are perceived by party workers and the public as a kind of panic reaction.

There are two factors that could ultimately lead to the BJP's defeat, whatever its campaign tactics. One, is the sheer strength in terms of electoral arithmetic of the alliance between the S.P. and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western Uttar Pradesh, a region from which the BJP reaped as many as seven seats in 1999. The S.P. drew a blank in the region while the RLD-Congress alliance won five seats. The joining of hands of the RLD and the S.P. has brought new enthusiasm to the cadre of both the parties. The second is the movement within the Muslim community to ensure once again the defeat of the BJP by tactical voting. In fact, there are indicators that even the BSP is not anathema to the community, despite its dalliances with the BJP. While the first factor is certainly going to harm the BJP, the impact of the second will depend to a large extent on the minority community getting its calculations right as to which candidate is capable of defeating the BJP. If it gets its calculations right, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh will struggle to see light at the end of the tunnel.


The blitz in Lucknow


LUCKNOW, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency, has the privilege of "electing the PM not an MP", say BJP leaders. As the campaign progressed, the entire top brass of the party remained focussed on the constituency, each one addressing seven or eight public meetings every day. Thousands of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) workers went from door to door explaining why "Atalji" should be re-elected, even as over 100 "men with a mission", all RSS-affiliated professionals in various fields, gathered inputs and redefined the campaign strategy at the party's central media cell. RSS workers campaigned in Muslim areas and BJP-friendly Muslims organised Atal yatras.

Why such an aggressive and intense campaign, especially when there is no doubt about Vajpayee's victory? There is no worthwhile challenger either. The Congress(I) is backing the lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who is contesting as an independent. But with Congress(I) workers, whom he is dependent on, making themselves scarce, Jethmalani was struggling to get his campaign off the block. Congress(I) candidate Akhilesh Das, who was forced to withdraw, agonised over the "betrayal" and kept away from the scene until Sonia Gandhi asked him to help Jathmalani out.

Das' supporters had torn flags, buntings and banners of Jethmalani on April 27. To quell the `revolt' Sonia dispatched Subodhkant Sahay, the party's Uttar Pradesh incharge, soon after voting in Ranchi, where he is the candidate, was over. On April 29, with barely four days of campaigning left, a hassled Sahay was struggling to put things right at the Congress headquarters in Lucknow. The Samajwadi Party has fielded Dr. Madhu Gupta, whose claim to fame is a lost mayoral election in Lucknow.

Was the BJP's campaign blitz a sign of nervousness after the "sari tragedy"? Is there a fear that if the "mascot" fails to win by a large enough margin the party's " mission 300" may be in danger? Having put all its eggs in one basket, the BJP was panicky, especially since the meetings addressed by Vajpayee and other top leaders did not attract as big crowds as the BJP leaders expected.

Besides, differences cropped up among senior leaders about the direction of the campaign. BJP insiders said there were reservations about the ways in which Pramod Mahajan, who was controlling the campaign in Lucknow, functioned and he was replaced by Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley. Among the top leaders who camped and campaigned in Lucknow were Sushma Swaraj, senior RSS leader Sanjay Joshi and Rajnath Singh, besides party president M. Venkaiah Naidu, L.K. Advani and Vajpayee himself.

The BJP used every opportunity to emphasise that the most important issue influencing this round of elections was the "issue of leadership". "There is an overwhelming popular urge for a second term for Atalji because of his parliamentary experience, restrained political style, assurance of good governance and excellent management of the economic condition," said Arun Jaitely. As opposed to this, in the Opposition camp there was "no alliance, no leader, no programme", he said. "It was a fight between clash and chaos on the one hand and safety, security and stability on the other," he added.

But that still does not explain why the BJP put so much effort into the non-fight in Lucknow. Vajpayee has represented Lucknow since 1991,when he won with 50.9 per cent of the votes, defeating the Congress's Ranjeet Singh who got 20.3 per cent. Until 1998, his vote percentage kept going up, 52.24 per cent in 1996 and 57.82 per cent in 1998. But it dropped to 48.11 per cent in 1999 and this is what is worrying the BJP leadership. If his vote percentage drops further, its "Atal centric" campaign would look hollow.

But given the Congress' dismal performance in Lucknow, there should be no reason for the BJP to worry. Its vote percentage was a pathetic 2.51 per cent in 1996 and 5.17 per cent in 1998. In 1999 there was a revival of sorts, when its nominee Dr. Karan Singh secured 31.71 per cent votes. This time round, the non-BJP votes could go en bloc to Jethmalani, considering the fact that he has the Congress' backing and that the rest of the Opposition has failed to mount a challenge. In the event, a drop in Vajpayee's vote share becomes a distinct possibility. Hence the high-power campaigning. Even Muslims were wooed with great passion and several BJP-friendly Muslim organisations sprang up. The Atal Himayat Karvan, Friends of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Vajpayee Fan Club were some of the organisations wooing the Muslim community.
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