Elections in India for even the panchayats and civic bodies are
seen as political barometers. Although they are supposed to
reflect local concerns, no party can afford to ignore their
outcome, not least because they are all fought on political
The high turnout for these contests, as for the recent Delhi
Municipal Corporation polls, is also an indication that like the
parties, the electorate too takes them seriously and intends to
send a message to the contenders.
However, the message for the two main parties - the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress - was a curious one. While
the BJP could congratulate itself for its success, especially
because it made history of sorts by beating the anti-incumbency
factor, the fall in its tally of seats from 164 to 138 was
nevertheless a reminder that voters were not all that pleased
On the other hand, the increase in the Congress' tally to 78
seats from 67 was an indication that although people were not
willing to write it off completely, they weren't ready to repose
full faith in it either.
The complexity of this outcome has an implication at the
national level. What it seems to mean is that the BJP's success
is largely the result of disillusionment with the Congress
rather than any approval of its policies.
It is therefore possible to conclude from the outcome that while
the Congress is losing its shine, the BJP is still not ready to
replace it. For the Congress, this particular warning has been
conveyed by a number of elections, starting from the Mumbai
municipal polls to the ones in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and
There is little doubt that the trend portends a drop in the
party's Lok Sabha seats from its present 200-plus to near what
it was after the 2004 parliamentary polls, which was 145. At the
same time, the BJP's tally may increase from the present 116,
but the two parties would still run neck-to-neck with neither
being able to pull ahead decisively.
The resultant dependence on their coalition partners presages
more indecision in the realm of government initiatives.
What is noteworthy is that the reason why the two are marking
time at the moment is not far to seek. In the Congress, it is
not only the scams which have tarnished its reputation but also
the dispiriting impression of a policy paralysis. And the reason
for it, as BJP leader Arun Jaitley said at the conclave of the
Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), was that the Congress
was at war with itself.
A similar "war" afflicts the BJP too, at the personal level, but
more of that later.
For the Congress, Jaitley's comment that two power centres in
the party had led to a standstill was too close to the truth for
comfort. More than the presence of two centres, what has been
worrisome is their diametrically opposite economic views, with
Manmohan Singh preferring market-oriented policies and Sonia
Gandhi opting for state-controlled paternalism.
The differences were not evident during the tenure of UPA-1 -
the ruling United Progressive Alliance's first term between 2004
and 2009 - probably because it was the Left which was shooting
down the prime minister's "neo-liberal" policies at the time
while the latter was preoccupied with pushing through the
Indo-US nuclear deal.
But the differences have come to the fore during UPA-2 with the
green lobby stalling industrial projects and the Sonia
Gandhi-led left-of-centre National Advisory Council floating
ideas like the food security bill which make a mockery of the
government's avowed goal of cutting subsidies.
To make matters worse for the prime minister, the UPA's allies
like the Trinamool Congress are also opposed to measures like
hiking fuel prices or allowing foreign investment in the retail
sector or introducing pension fund, banking and insurance
reforms. If the BJP now supports the pension fund reforms, as
Jaitley has promised, then the prime minister may still have the
last laugh and the government may give the impression of moving
But there is no certainty that the BJP will be so generous as to
bail out an opponent.
So the chances are that the present stalemate will continue, as
the government's economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, has hinted. In
that case, the Congress is likely to face more electoral
As for the BJP, it can also be said to have more than two focal
points. Apart from the head of the saffron brotherhood, the
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), orchestrating the BJP's
policies and choice of personnel, there is no certainty about
the party's prime ministerial candidate. Nor about its
ideological orientation - whether it will be Hindutva or Hindu
supremacist agenda again, or a moderate line of the kind which
was followed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP can, therefore, be said to be
bubbling with confidence about the future.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org