On December 8, the outcome of the elections to the legislative assemblies of five of India’s provinces or states will become known. The states are the national capital of Delhi, Rajasthan in western India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in central India and Mizoram in the north-eastern part of the country.
Unlike 20 of the 28 states in India, the polity in the first four named states has been largely bipolar, with power often oscillating between the country’s two biggest political parties, the centrist Indian National Congress (the “grand old party” which currently leads the ruling coalition in power in the federal or Union government) and its principal opponent, the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Whereas Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are ruled by the BJP, Delhi, Rajasthan and Mizoram have Congress governments. Opinion polls indicate pro-incumbency trends in the two BJP-ruled states and in Mizoram, anti-incumbency sentiments are seen to be prevailing in Delhi and Rajasthan. Congress party spokespersons predictably pooh-pooh the findings of opinion pollsters describing these as inaccurate, speculative and even, motivated.
To what extent will the outcome of the ongoing state assembly elections indicate the overall political mood prevailing in the world’s largest democracy in the run-up to the sixteenth general elections that are scheduled to take place in April-May 2014?
In December 2003, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition, which then ruled India, exuded confidence after winning elections to the assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and brought forward the fourteenth general elections in India to April-May 2004 that could have been held in September-October that year after the conclusion of the government’s full term of five years. In May 2004, after the poll outcome became clear, leaders of the BJP were shocked to realize that their party had shrunk in size and that the NDA coalition would not be in a position to form India’s federal government.
Four years down the line, the Congress went on to lose a series of state elections in different parts of the country. The November-December 2008 assembly elections witnessed anti-incumbency sentiments prevailing in all the five states mentioned that went to the polls barring one, that is, Chhattisgarh. Yet these sentiments were not strong enough to dislodge the ruling party in three out of the five states, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, while in Rajasthan and Mizoram, the incumbent regimes were replaced by the Congress.
Of all the five elections that are taking place, the one in Delhi is being keenly watched not just because it is taking place in the national capital. The Congress and the BJP are challenged by the newly-formed Aam Admi Party (literally, the party of ordinary people), born out of an anti-corruption movement and led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former government official who was earlier active in a movement to enforce the Right to Information Act.
The surprise of the December 2008 assembly elections in Delhi was the victory of the incumbent Congress government led by Shiela Dikshit for the third time in a row. No Chief Minister of Delhi has served two full terms like Dikshit, leave alone three terms. The question is whether she can lead the Congress to a fourth successive win. The supporters of Dikshit claim her administrative capabilities are superior to those of her political rival from the BJP, Dr Harsh Vardhan, who, in turn, claims her government has been unable to control food prices, check corruption and improve law and order conditions – Delhi was rocked by a popular agitation after the gang-rape of a young woman in December 2012.
The big political question is whether the Aam Admi Party, with a broom as its election symbol ostensibly epitomising its effort to clean up corruption in high places, will make a dent in Delhi’s traditionally bipolar polity. If, indeed, AAP performs well in Delhi, it will be construed as a political game-changer of sorts since most attempts in the past by newly-formed political parties to weaken established parties have not been successful.
In November 2000, after Chhattisgarh became a separate state carved out of Madhya Pradesh, the Congress held 62 seats in the Vidhan Sabha or state assembly, the BJP had 22 MLAs while five seats were held by other parties. In December 2003, after assembly elections were held in the new state for the first time, the BJP swept the polls with 50 seats; the Congress obtained only 37 seats. The BJP was able to repeat this performance thanks to Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh’s relatively non-controversial image. More importantly, what clinched the election for the incumbents was the state government’s decision to provide poor families cheap rice and free salt.
What has hurt the Congress in the state in the past was factionalism – former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi did not see eye-to-eye with former leader of the opposition in the assembly Mahendra Karma, who was killed by left-wing extremists (Maoists or Naxalites) who wield considerable influence in the densely-forested, mineral-rich southern part of the state (the Bastar region) which is populated by tribal communities.
Over the last decade, a number of schemes initiated by the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh (headed by Shivraj Singh Chouhan) to benefit women and help farmers have made the party buck anti-incumbency sentiments. The BJP could not have performed as well as it did in the state had it not been helped greatly by deep divisions in the Congress.
On this occasion, the Congress appears more united and hopes to significantly improve its performance in Madhya Pradesh under the leadership of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who is a federal minister and a confidante of Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old vice president of the Congress and son of Sonia Gandhi, widow of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (who was assassinated in May 1991 by supporters of ethnic Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka).
The electoral contest in Rajasthan – a sprawling, picturesque desert state in western India bordering Pakistan which is popular with tourists for its famed palaces and feudal past – in 2008 was quite close. The Congress did not obtain a majority in the 200-member state assembly – it won 96 seats – and had to depend on the support of legislators from other parties who went on to join the Congress. Ashok Gehlot, the current Chief Minister, had served as Chief Minister of the state between December 1998 and December 2003. His rival is former BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje who is perceived by some as ‘feudal’, ‘haughty’ and ‘imperious’.
A third player that has emerged in Rajasthan’s traditionally bipolar polity is a party led by MP Kirori Lal Meena who claims that this time round, the elections will throw up a “hung” assembly and that he will play the role of “king maker”. “Queen” Raje, belonging to a former royal family, is equally confident that she will return to power, while incumbent Chief Minister Gehlot believes his social welfare policies – free medicines, health-care facilities and a new pension scheme — will ensure that voters will return him and his party to power for another five-year term in the “pink city” of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.
After the June 1986 agreement between the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the one-time underground Mizo leader Laldenga, Mizoram has been relatively free from the influence of violent insurgency that has prevailed in most other states in north-eastern India. Mizoram, dominated by tribals who are mainly Christian, is also among India’s most literate states. With a population of just over a million, Mizoram is the only state in India where women voters outnumber men. The state shares borders with Myanmar (404 kilometres) and Bangladesh (318 km). The electorate of Mizoram turns out to vote in large numbers. In December 2008, the voter turnout was over 80 per cent and on this occasion, the proportion has been even higher at nearly 82 per cent. A newly-designed device called “voter-verified paper audit trail”, which confirms whether a voter has cast as she or he wished, was used in ten of the 40 assembly segments of Mizoram for the first time in India.
The political battle in the state is between the ruling Congress led by Lalthanhawla and the opposition coalition called Mizoram Democratic Alliance (comprising the MNF and two small local parties) headed by Zoramthanga. Analysts expect the elections to be keenly contested.
Given the experience of the past, most political observers are of the view that the ongoing assembly elections should not be seen as a “curtain raiser” or a “semi-final” of sorts to next year’s general elections. At the same time, the outcome of the elections are being closely watched for possible pointers to the political mood that would prevail in the country before the general elections.