Kanchan Gupta / Analysis
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was given to moments of jocular frivolity at times of great stress, for instance on the eve of election results. At the fag end of the 1999 election campaign, a senior journalist asked him what would rate as one of the most banal, if not asinine, questions: “Mr Vajpayee, who do you think will emerge winner?” Without batting his eyelids, Mr Vajpayee replied, “Of course the BJP.” That was contrary to what opinion polls, including one commissioned by his party, were saying: The Congress, according to pollsters, had an edge over the BJP. Later that evening, I made a passing reference to the ease with which he was predicting a BJP victory in the face of a concerted Congress assault. Mr Vajpayee laughed it off and then said, “Nobody can predict the outcome of an election, never mind what politicians and pollsters say.” Placing three fingers of his right hand face down on his left palm, he added, “Any election is like a game of ‘teen patti’ (three-card game). Till such time you turn the cards and see them, you can only guess what has been dealt to you. Similarly, till the votes are counted, nobody can say with any certitude what lies in store for the contestants.”
On the face of it, such wisdom may appear commonplace. After all, veterans of electoral wars would be the first to agree that no battle is won or lost till the last vote is counted. Yet, come election time and every politician and pollster tries to outguess the voter, more often than not coming to grief. The 1999 opinion polls, including the one commissioned by the BJP, turned out to be way off the mark. The BJP and its allies were returned to power with a majority of their own; the Congress had to eat humble pie. So also with the exit polls that were telecast 72 hours before the results of the 2009 general election were declared on Saturday — they didn’t quite forecast such a stunningly stupendous performance by the Congress and the BJP’s astonishing failure to meet its own expectations, fuelled by internal assessments that failed to reflect the popular mood. Whoever predicted on the basis of an ‘exit poll’, and thereby made the party look silly on Saturday, that the NDA would get 217 seats compared to the UPA’s 176 owes more than a mere explanation.
The Congress, no doubt, has won a splendid victory; not to accept this fact would be sheer cussedness. Having said that, it would be equally incorrect to subscribe to the view that at the moment the Congress is riding the crest of a tidal popularity wave which in the coming days will turn into a tsunami of support for the party. Yes, the Congress has made stupendous gains, but a close scrutiny of the results will show that they are not entirely at the expense of the BJP. Nor have the gains accrued to the Congress on account of either policy or programme. For instance, the Congress has picked up a large number of seats in Kerala and West Bengal for reasons that are entirely different. In Kerala, the Left has paid a huge price for infighting within the CPI(M) that has spilled into the streets: A divided cadre couldn’t get their act together. In West Bengal, the Left has been decimated because popular resentment with the CPI(M) for the various sins of omission and commission of the Marxists reached tipping point in this election, helped in large measure by the alliance between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.
In States where the BJP has lost seats to the Congress, the credit largely goes to saboteurs within the party. It is no secret that a section of the BJP worked against the party’s nominees in certain constituencies in Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan, the reasons that led to the BJP’s defeat in last year’s Assembly election remain unresolved. In Uttarakhand, infighting has led to the BJP’s rout. In Jammu & Kashmir, the BJP could have won in Udhampur and Jammu if the local party units had not abandoned the candidates whom they saw as ‘outsiders’. In Maharashtra, the BJP failed to correctly assess the strength of Mr Raj Thackeray’s MNS which has turned out to be a spoiler in Mumbai’s urban constituencies where the party stood a good chance of winning. By default, the Congress has benefited on account of the BJP’s deficiencies. Nowhere is this more evident than in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP clearly failed to sense the shift in voter preference and ended up under-estimating its ability to pick up additional seats which have now gone to the Congress, swelling its national tally.
These reasons apart, at the end of the day what emerges is that the Congress has reached where it has on account of four factors whose impact could not have been predicted at any stage during the campaign when popular mood is palpable. First, the ‘Chiru factor’ has put paid to the TDP’s hopes of staging a comeback. The Congress has gained in the process. Second, the ‘Vijaykant factor’ has spiked the AIADMK’s electoral prospects. The ‘Black MGR of Tamil Nadu politics’ has turned out to be a classic spoiler. Third, the ‘Mamata factor’ was never seriously factored in, especially by the Left, while calculating the possible outcome of this election. Ironically, the amazing collapse of the Left has worked to the detriment of the BJP. Fourth, the ‘urban factor’ continues to elude logical interpretation. If the voting trend is any indication, we must come to the conclusion, and regretfully so, that India’s middleclass is no longer guided by the moral compass. Nothing else explains why corruption should cease to be an election issue and the brazen exoneration by the Congress of those who have looted India fetch no more than a cynical, couldn’t-care-less response. It is equally surprising that the middleclass should have chosen to overlook the mishandling of the national economy by the UPA Government and the pitiable state of internal security. We would have thought that these are concerns that agitate the middleclass the most since they shout the most about corruption, price rise and terrorism.
There is, however, no percentage in looking back. The BJP remains a national alternative to the Congress, more so after this election which has pushed regional parties and their identity politics to the margins of national politics. The BJP’s tally is nothing to scoff at. There is no shame in sitting in the Opposition and preparing for the next battle. Elections come and go, but parties remain. It is for their leaders to use the interregnum to reflect on mistakes, regain organisational strength and revive hope among the faithful. There are, after all, no full stops in politics, and life does not come to an end with the declaration of results.