March 20, 2013

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM ROUND ONE OF ASSEMBLY POLLS - 2013

Assembly Polls 2013: The Winners
With the three north eastern states that went to the polls in the early part of the year re-electing their incumbent Chief Ministers to power, the phase one of the state elections that will be held throughout 2013 came to an eventful end. While each of these had one clear winner, past experiences and a little common sense will tell us that there is certainly more to our politics than simply crossing the majority mark or forming the government. Political parties are trying hard to read between the lines, analyzing the verdict from various angles and finding issues that resonate with the people so as to chalk out effective strategies ahead of the upcoming Vidhan Soudha mandate in other states, while keeping the big daddy of them all - Lok Sabha 2014 firmly in focus. Though we cannot generalize the findings that have come out of Agartala, Shillong or Kohima with other parts of the country considering the maze that our Rajneeti is, some of the trends seen here will be of interest to both - the politicians as well as the analysts who closely track the electoral process and developments in the world's largest democracy. In my opinion, the biggest highlights which have come out of the recently concluded polls in the north eastern region are as follows:-

(1) High Voting Percentage - Jago re, Jago re, Jagooo re: Voting is certainly the most important right that the Constitution guarantees us. In the past though, we Indians have taken this privilege for granted, preferring to take the day off rather than waiting in queues in front of the election booths. However, ever since the turn of the new millennium, there has been a steady increase in

Courtesy: IBN Live
the voting percentage in most polls, right from the Panchayat level to General elections. Be it due to the sustained efforts of the Election Commission or because the electorate is becoming aware of its responsibilities, the participation of more people in these processes is a positive sign and will go a long way in strengthening our democratic credentials. In fact, electoral history was created this time around in Tripura as 93.57 percent of all registered voters cast the ballot - the highest ever since independent India's first elections in 1952. While the voting percentage in the other two states fell slightly as compared to the last assembly polls, the people in Meghalaya must be given credit for the manner in which they defied the bandh called by the extremist organization - the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council and came out in such large numbers to make their opinions matter, reaffirming their faith in our democracy, in spite of all its flaws. Even in 2012, the polling percentage in all seven states was well above the national average. The high voter turnout is a clear indication of the fact that masses have realized every vote matters and by not voting they are helping undeserving candidates win.

(2) Anti-incumbency..... Whats that? In the years following the Emergency of 1977-78, anti-incumbency was probably, the most issue in Indian elections. In fact, except for the Left in its bastions of Bengal and Tripura, the BJP in Gujarat and the Congress in few of the north eastern provinces, fortunes of political parties in most states would change every five years. Though the BJP tried to suppress it by raising the 'feel good factor' slogan ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha and ended up paying a heavy price, the UPA managed to win a second consecutive term. Likewise, Manik Sarkar's 'Mr Clean' image and the steps his government took to establish peace by combating extremism won him a straight forth term, saving the last fortress of the communists in the country. In Meghalaya, a state renowned for its 'Aaya Ram - Gaya Ram' politics, the vote was for stability as Mukul Roy took the Congress extremely close to the majority on its own. The numerous corruption allegations against the Rio government could not prevent the NPF from retaining power single-handedly as the Naga issue struck a chord with the electorate. Last year, while Parkash Singh Badal become the first CM in over four decades to be elected for two straight terms in Punjab, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi routed the Congress in his backyard. Meanwhile, Ikram Ibobi Singh won a third term for the INC in Manipur. The writing on the wall is clear. The public will not hesitate to vote for their sitting MLAs again, if and only if they either have an excellent report card at the end of their term or seem to have credibility to deliver on their issues that concern the aam admi. No wonder then that development, stability or even some regional sentiments can undo any damage that anti-incumbency can cause.

(3) The Left survives the lithmus test: Many analysts believed that the Tripura elections could well be the last nail in the coffin of the Communists in India if the grand coalition of the INC had managed to storm the Agartala assembly. In retrospection, one will realize that the political stars of the Red brigade took a downward turn since they pulled out support to the UPA in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal. In the 2009 General elections, the Left dropped 35 seats to finish at a mere 24 and the Third Front failed
Courtesy: CPI(M)
to pose any challenge to the Congress led alliance, rendering it insignificant in the Parliament. In 2011, the Congress extracted revenge over their former buddies for the 2008 fiasco as it trounced the Marxists by four seats in a closely fought contest to win Kerala. The biggest shock though came from Bengal as Didi capitalized on the agitations in Singur and Nandigram to full fill her life long dream of coming to power in Kolkata. No wonder than that all eyes were on Tripura as three time CM Manik Sarkar led the Left Front in the battle for its last stronghold in the country. All thanks to in fighting amongst Congress leaders, the persona of Sarkar and the development work carried out by the previous regimes, the ruling alliance won a decisive victory, walking away with 50 of the 60 seats inspite of failing to deliver on issues like poverty and unemployment. While the mandate was more like an endorsement for the Sarkar government than for the Marxist ideology, the politiburo is hopeful that such an amazing performance will rejuvenate the cadre and boost its prospects in the 2014 so that it emerges as a key player on the national stage, once again.

(4) Mixed Bag for the Congress: With the Congress ruling over five of the eight north eastern states, the round one of the assembly polls 2013 was an excellent opportunity for the party to further make inroads into the region, especially because two of the states - Tripura and Nagaland which had been under its political rivals for a long time were up for grabs. With Baba's 'Mission 2014' in mind, the party got its entire top brass - the trioka of Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to campaign here.
Courtesy: Shillong Times
However, it failed to do the ground work properly, something that the crown prince had stressed in his list of imperatives for revival. Deep rooted factionalism between leaders and faulty distribution of tickets were the prime reason for the pathetic performance of the INC and its allies in the Tripura polls. While it is true that nothing could bring down the Sarkar Raj in Agartala, the high command will certainly not be pleased by way things went for the party. Though failing to do well in Tripura is a cause of concern, there is no justification whatsoever for the disastrous numbers that the outfit got in Nagaland where it finished with just 8 seats. There is an urgent need for it to do some serious introspection so as to find out the reasons for its failure to even cross the two digit mark considering the various corruption scandals that the Rio government was embodied in. Nonetheless, Mukul Sangma emerged as the poster boy for the party as he prevented a white wash by almost winning Meghalaya on his own in spite of the various contenders in the fray. As the north eastern region which contributes a total of 25 seats to the Lok Sabha has largely been a stronghold of the Congress in the past, the party needs to make additional efforts to reach out to the people in a bid to address their concerns so as to strengthen its position prior to the big mandate.

(5) Another flop show for the BJP: After dropping the tainted Nitin Gadkari following a last minute coup by its top leaders in what has been seen as an effort to break free from the shackles of the RSS, the saffron outfit was hoping that the new President Rajnath Singh would steer it back to the top. Singh showed aggression, trying to mix the Hindutva agenda with development, hoping that its ideology will become more relevant to the youth while preserving its traditional vote bank. The most important part of this strategy was to expand the BJP beyond the Hindi heartland, taking it to hitherto unknown lands and make it a formidable power across the nation. As such, Singh took an active part in the campaign, visiting these poll bound states with other national leaders and even opening channels of communication with regional players. However, in spite of all the efforts that the former UP CM put in, the party managed to get just one seat which is embarrassing to say the least. The lone seat that it won out of the 11 it contested in Nagaland came from the Tijit constituency. Sadly, it even failed to open its account in Meghalaya and Tripura. The question staring the party is whether it can afford to think of ruling the country without a significant presence in several parts. The outfit which came into the national scene after the demolition of the Babri Masjid is virtually non-existent in Bengal, most of the north eastern states and down south. In Uttar Pradesh its influence has waned and in states like Bihar and Punjab, it plays second fiddle to other stronger partners. It is but clear that Rajnath needs to focus on building the BJP in these regions rather than simply going there just before elections or else it will never become a national party in true sense.

(6) Endgame Sangma? When Garo strongman Purno Sangma joined the National People's Party (NPP) after failing in his bid to become the thirteenth President of India, the conception, atleast in the media was that he would have a big impact on the election results in his home state of Meghalaya. The exodus of top leaders from his previous party - the NCP including his two sons into the NPP further strengthened this claim. However, the results were a shocker to Purno and his supporters. As the
Courtesy: Frontline
Congress under one Mukul Sangma inched close to majority on its own, the NPP had a disastrous debut with only two of its candidates making it to the legislative assembly, much lower than the 10 odd seats which the pundits had predicted. The Congress won 12 of the 25 seats in the Garo region - the home turf of the seasoned politician. This is significant because the NPP chief has represented this part of the country in the Lok Sabha on multiple occasions before his daughter Agatha was elected from here in 2009. Shockingly, his younger son Conrad who is a former state minister and Leader of Opposition was beaten by Clement Marak of the INC in Selsella constituency. The only consolation for the tribal leader was that his eldest son James won from Daddenggire. Many believe that the 2013 Meghalaya polls might well have sounded the end of the political career of P A Sangma, who arguably, is the most famous politician from the North east. However, it is too early to write off the NPP chief, specially because he has seen several storms (and parties of course) in his political career spanning over four decades. With the General elections just an year away, the senior Sangma will get one last opportunity to make a comeback. Meanwhile, his children - James, Conrad and Agatha are young and should work hard to live upto the legacy of their illustrious father. On the other hand, with his brother Zenith and wife Dikkanchi Shira also giving him company in the Megahalaya Vidhan Soudha, CM Mukul Sangma's family has emerged as the new first family of the state politics, atleast for the time being.


For more on the 2014 General Elections
(1) The Fall of the Triumvirate (Link)
(2) The Double Edged Sword (Link)
(3) An Ally in Need is an Ally Indeed (Link)



IMAGES

(1) Coutesy: IBN Live
Source: Northeast election; polling underway in Meghalaya, Nagaland; high turnout expected (Link)

(2) Coutesy: CPI(M) (Link)

(3) Coutesy: Shillong Times
Source: NCP locks horns with Mukul over subsidiary fiasco(Link)

(4) Coutesy: Frontline
Source: Assembly Elections: North eastern round (Link)