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20 May 2016 Editorial

 

20  MAY 2016

The meaning of victory and defeat

Five Assembly elections, and five different winners. But the voters did not distribute their favours equitably. The Congress, the only party with a realistic chance of being part of a winning coalition in all the five elections, won only one, the least important politically, the Union Territory of Puducherry. In Assam, it ceded ground to its principal rival at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the first time. In Kerala, where it headed a coalition government as the leading member of the United Democratic Front, it lost heavily to the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In West Bengal, the party’s incongruous alliance with the Left Front failed to enthuse voters, who saw it as devious and opportunistic. And in Tamil Nadu, the revival of the alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam yielded little dividend for the Congress. The BJP, however, can take heart from its victory in Assam, where it managed to stitch together an alliance with regional parties, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front. In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the two big States in which it is a minor player, the BJP will not be displeased with the success of the Trinamool Congress over the Left-Congress alliance and of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam over the DMK-Congress alliance. Both victors have better relations with the BJP than with the Congress. In Kerala, the BJP made its debut by winning its first seat, signalling that it could emerge as a third force in the medium to long term. So, in a head-to-head with the Congress, the BJP is the clear winner in this round of Assembly elections.

In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK led by Ms. Jayalalithaa did well to overcome anti-incumbency. Not since her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran won in 1984 has any Chief Minister retained power, winning a comfortable majority despite the close contest. After decades of alliance politics, Tamil Nadu seems to be moving towards a polarisation between the two major Dravidian parties. The third front, led by the party of actor-turned politician Vijayakant, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, failed to win a seat. Indeed, it was supplanted as the third force by the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which polled almost as many votes as the six-party DMDK-led front. The DMK’s allies fared worse than it did, raising the question whether it gave away too many seats in trying to win new friends. Although the alliance with the Congress seems to have worked in the deep south, where the national party retains a support base, in many other places the DMK appeared to have only made things easier for the AIADMK by handing over the seats to its allies. Two things seemed to have settled the election in the AIADMK’s favour. First, the anti-incumbency sentiment, if it existed at all, was not as strong as many observers believed it was. Second, the existence of a multi-cornered contest served to blunt anti-incumbency even further. Her biggest challenge is how to manage her revenue-sapping promise of introducing a phased prohibition without scaling down her populist policies. Also, she will have to contend with a much stronger Opposition than before, with the DMK alliance having won over 40 per cent of the seats in the Assembly.

In Kerala, the LDF, having returned with a comfortable majority, will now have to choose between its two chief ministerial aspirants, former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and former State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Mr. Achuthanandan is the popular face of the CPI(M), but Mr. Vijayan is the organisation man, commanding greater support within the party. Whoever is chosen will be tasked with improving governance in this politically conscious State of unforgiving voters. The Left, and the CPI(M) particularly, would have been devastated with a loss in Kerala, given how poorly the party fared in West Bengal. Kerala ranks high on most human development indices; what it has failed to do over the years is to leverage this effectively to attract industry and investment to become even more prosperous.

In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress appears to have perfected the art, learnt from the Left Front, of managing elections. Its leader, Ms. Banerjee, has a knack for identifying popular issues and aggressively mobilising support around them. Quite remarkably, the Trinamool was able to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and improve on its 2011 tally against the combined strength of the Left and the Congress. The CPI(M) will rue the decision to ally with the Congress, despite serious reservations within a section of the national leadership. The alliance clearly helped the Congress more than the Left, which astonishingly ended up with fewer seats than its junior partner. The Left’s continually sliding electoral performance in West Bengal raises questions about how it can reinvent itself in a State it ruled for three decades. Quick-fix alliances are not the solution; if anything, it lies in winning back the support of the peasantry and the labour class, which it has lost in part to the Trinamool. In Assam, the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance was able to convince people of the importance of putting up a joint fight against their long-time rival, the Congress. By registering its first victory in an Assembly election in the Northeast, the BJP will hope to use this as a launchpad for further consolidation in the region. All in all, it is the Congress, having lost control of two States, which has reason to be most disheartened by the results; the victory in Puducherry in alliance with the DMK is small consolation. The question about how it can reverse the slide after 2014 will only become sharper now. As for the BJP, its boasts of having emerged a truly national player are vastly exaggerated. While it has repeatedly demonstrated it is better placed in direct face-offs against a diminishing Congress, there are parts of India where its presence is either marginal or very slight. This is relevant for a party looking to retain power in 2019. It is difficult, if not well-nigh impossible, to repeat its stunning 2014 sweep of the Hindi heartland; the seats the BJP will lose here will need to be compensated in States where its base is weak. It made no headway in Tamil Nadu. And while its performance in West Bengal and Kerala was much better, it needs to do a lot more before it can be regarded as a serious player in these States and a truly pan-Indian presence as the Congress once was.



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