Let us resist the familiar post-election temptation of looking at the results through the prism of caste, creed and communities. When we survey the wreckage of defeat and the enormity of victory, we just can’t miss one redeeming reality: the leaders were at last separated from pretenders. The power of leadership, not the colour of ideology, makes all the difference. The electorate was merciless in its verdict on those who failed to gain access to the people’s mind. If Sheila Dikshit—the soaring Mrs D who is emerging as the second-most powerful woman in the Congress—has won Delhi for the third time, the victory is hers—hers alone.
With leaders of both parties lacking pan-India appeal, a syndicate of regional leaders may choose the ruler in DelhiIf BJP chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have prevailed in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it’s because they are performers with a common touch. And if Vasundhara Raje has been ejected from Rajasthan, it is because she is not yet the Rani in her own parivar. So the refrain of the commentariat: in the semi-final between the Congress and the BJP, our GOP wins 3-2. I would rather see the assembly elections as the primaries of our national parties, though I am yet to see an Obama.
Still, there were only dispensable scapegoats and no bloated heads rolled from the central commands for bad performance. In the past, there were many claimants for success but none for defeat. Within the Congress, the whisper campaign targeted the so-called awesome foursome of AICC General Secretary Digvijay Singh, star campaigner and Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, MPCC President Suresh Pachauri and the young Jyotiraditya Scindia for the resounding rout in Madhya Pradesh. On the saffron side, one section put the entire blame for the humiliation in Delhi on obvious soft targets like V.K. Malhotra and local party President Harshvardhan. In the twisted hierarchy of politics, nothing succeeds like defeat.
That is why those who chose weak leaders and dubious candidates and ran expensive yet ineffective campaigns were not asked any questions because they control the high command in both the parties. The results made it clear that the states were not looking for national leaders.
The verdict is a celebration of local leadership. Three of the four chief ministers were able to defy the anti-incumbency devil. It reflected poorly on the reflexes of the central leadership of both parties. In Delhi, Malhotra became the third choice of the party because the high command thought even a lamp post would win because of the anti-Sheila wave across the capital. In retrospect, the wave was there only in the fantasy of the mighty strategist.
The BJP fell to hubris—and a veteran like Malhotra was wasted in the doomed campaign. As a Congress leader puts it, “we won because we had a star campaigner in Sheilaji while the BJP had five-star campaigners”. She became the first Congress politician in four decades to win an election for the third time after V.P. Naik in Maharashtra and Mohan Lal Sukhadia in Rajasthan. The Congress leadership was equally confident of defeating Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh. The party never projected any leader in any of the three states, expecting the local satraps to defeat the incumbents.
The Congress, though, was wiser. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi made only symbolic appearances in the campaign. Sonia didn’t even bother to visit many states during the first round. And son Rahul Gandhi kept himself away from the battlegrounds after a disastrous experience in the Gujarat elections. The Congress high command left the selection of candidates and the campaign strategy entirely to local leaders. The big daddies of the BJP were everywhere; they flew across the states in chartered planes.
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, and party President Rajnath Singh even skipped the all-party meeting convened by the prime minister following 26/11 as they thought campaigning was more urgent. There was total disconnect between what the local leaders projected and what was being espoused by the central leadership.
The message can’t be missed by those who aspire to rule India. Power at the Centre can no longer be sustained without strong political input from the provinces. The Centre can impose leaders on the states but, on its own, it cannot win an election. Welcome to the age of the strong state and the weak Centre.
They are fighters and winners, and most of them are mentored by the party’s first charioteer Advani. He has not let a new set of younger leaders grow, and remains heavily dependent on not street-fighters but apparatchiks. The BJP doesn’t have a leader worth its salt in states like Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa and in the Northeast.
The Congress doesn’t exist in more than 250 seats in the country, and the party’s destiny is dictated by the impulses of the Dynasty. The party that ruled the country for almost five decades has not crossed the 150 mark in the Lok Sabha since 1996 because it has systematically demolished the state structures. Lessons of December for the big two of Indian politics:
- Nepotism will not win elections;
- Give more political autonomy to state leaders;
- Honesty and leadership matter more than sycophancy;
- Choose leaders who can lead and govern;
- Make development the campaign mantra.
Will the national leadership now let winners from the states take the centrestage? This question was asked when leaders like Nehru and Indira Gandhi were around. While Nehru allowed powerful state satraps to co-exist, Mrs Gandhi was ruthless in neutralising them. The result was the emergence of regional parties formed by former Congressmen or caste leaders who were denied a stake in power. Those who followed Indira to lead the party never got the same mandate; even her son Rajiv Gandhi became the first Gandhi who failed to get a second term. Sonia is yet to become the restorer of glory.
Now that the state elections have turned out to be a draw, neither of the parties can approach Elections 2009 with certainty. They need winnable allies and credible candidates. With national leaders of both parties lacking pan-India appeal and acceptability, a syndicate of regional leaders is likely to choose the next ruler in Delhi. The Left may become the kingmaker again if the NDA and the UPA fail to cross the 150 mark. We are headed for a longer season of rule by a national leadership that can’t win a state but is controlled by leaders who can win the states.