Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Power & Politics / Mail Today, September 21, 2009

THE FUTURE of chief ministers is seldom put on the line by the results of byeelections. Too much should not be read into these which, while having a bearing on the future of individual candidates, are no barometer on the rise or fall in the popularity of a leader or a government. Even voters, knowing their votes will not change or sustain a government, are more likely to register protest votes.

The past fortnight has seen by- polls held in 44 assembly constituencies across eight states. The winners will no doubt go overbroad with visions of revival while the losers are likely to seek solace in the dictum “ you win some you lose some”. But the results of the bye- elections have caused palpitations because the people have conveyed the message that they are monitoring their leaders not only for their performance but also their conduct.

For chief ministers in five states, the bye polls were a litmus test. I will leave aside West Bengal where the CPI( M) is so demoralised it can’t even find candidates against Mamata; Tamil Nadu, where the AIADMK is conspicuous by its absence and Uttar Pradesh where, for the moment at least, it appears Mayawati ka jawab nahin ( is unbeatable). But there were mixed signals for Nitish Kumar ( Bihar), Narendra Modi ( Gujarat), Sheila Dikshit ( Delhi), BS Yeddyurappa ( Karnataka) and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank ( Uttarakhand).

After a decade and half of misrule of the Lalu- Rabri combine, Nitish came like a breath of fresh air but it is clear from the scale of the defeat — the NDA won just 5 of the 18 seats as against 12 it held — that the voters in Bihar weren’t taken in by the state government PR department’s advertisements portraying him as a man of action who guaranteed satisfaction. While Nitish must be lauded for improving the law and order situation in that lawless state, the arrogance and the aura of invincibility that he has built around himself has been punctured.

The back to back victories that voters gave him in two assembly and parliamentary elections were meant to better their lives; instead he saw himself as a power broker at the centre, even a potential prime minister. The reality check from the voters, who also gave the disgraced Lalu- Paswan combine nine of the 18 seats, is also proof that the real alternative to the JD( U) in Bihar is not the Congress but the RJD- LJP team.

In Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, the only third term Congress chief minister, got a rude shock as the party lost both by- elections, just four months after the Congress won 66 of the 70 assembly segments and all seven seats in the Lok Sabha polls. The denizens of the capital would agree that Delhi is a much better place to live in now than ten years ago, but three back to back wins have obviously Nitish Kumar induced a sense of complacency and over- confidence in Sheilaji who failed to see that the people had alternative choices. Narendra Modi is lucky that the Congress chooses to attack not his performance but his image.

Modi relishes nothing better. So he engaged the Congress once again on its terms and emerged triumphant. In the Lok Sabha elections, he had barely managed to hang on to his 2004 tally and the man who was seen as a potential prime minister was written off as nothing more than a regional leader. It’s quite clear that Modi knows the Gujarat voters better than his own party bosses in Delhi and the men and women who sit at 24 Akbar Road. The unending and personal attacks on Modi, the person, as against Modi the chief minister, saw Gujaratis rally around him and he won five of the seven seats.

The Congress will have to revise its strategy before it takes on Modi next. Uttarakhand’s Nishank was brought in as chief minister after the BJP lost all Lok Sabha seats in the state, so the sole by- election was a crucial test for him. And he has brought credit to his party and done well enough to ensure that he doesn’t fall prey to machinations at 11 Ashoka Road. The surprise package of course has been Karnataka’s Yeddyurappa. Remember, his first tenure lasted less than 24 hours only because he found nothing wrong in supping with the devil to grab power.

In winning four of the five by elections ( three wrested from Congress), he not only learnt the lesson that there are no short cuts to power, he has also ensured that the Gowdas will soon become an extinct political species, that the Congress has a steep uphill climb next time and that the BJP in the state is synonymous with him. The mixed signals have sent varied messages to our leaders. It is up to them to learn their lessons.

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