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Published in the 1-15 January 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

How secular forces can yet win the final?
By Syed Shahabuddin

The defeat of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh just as its victory in Delhi was expected but its defeat in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh has taken most political observers and analysts by surprise. What is amazing is the BJP's margin of victory in MP and Rajasthan. Now torrents of words will flow to explain what went wrong with the Congress and what helped the BJP to turn the table.

No Understanding Among Secular Parties
Certain facts stare us in the face. The Congress which was facing the anti-incumbency factor should have been better prepared to face public criticism of its performance but it was overconfident. In its arrogance it even put aside its own Shimla consensus on the plea that electoral alliance, adjustment or understanding with other parties in assembly elections was a prerogative of the State leadership. This was a transparently false excuse because every one knows who takes the decision in the Congress set-up and how they are taken. The position would have been totally different, had the central leadership of the Congress set up an empowered committee, including the four Chief Ministers, to discuss the possibility of a joint contest with all recognized national and state secular parties. Had there been a one-to-one contest with the BJP, the secular 'alliance' would have made a difference in many constituencies. From the voting details one can easily see the extent of damage caused by the non-crystallization of such an alliance. The SP in Madhya Pradesh, the NCP in Chhattisgarh, the RLD in Rajasthan and the BSP and the CPI in all four including Delhi would have helped Congress win many seats that it lost, at a small price. Some analysts argue that Delhi being a diarchy, the anti-incumbency factor was deflected from the state to the Centre. That should make BJP worry about the General Elections. In any case they will face this factor in 2004!

No Equitable Distribution of Tickets
The second mistake the Congress committed is the distribution of tickets in the traditional durbar style - the old party loyalism, the family connection, the personal influence, which all translate into preference for high castes and the affluent class both of which everywhere tilted towards the BJP! In the process it failed to take into account the social demography of each constituency and to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the emergent social groups - sometimes the dominant group in a given constituency. As the major national party, the distribution should have been equitable to all friendly social mini-groups (1-2% in the population) which, by virtue of their total population in the state, would have been entitled to two or three seats and accommodated such mini-groups in constituencies of their choice where they had winnable candidates. Such candidatures would have an impact throughout the State among the voters belonging to these mini-groups. In all other constituencies, it should have normally given its ticket to a candidate from the biggest social group friendly to the party. Call it caste, sub-caste, communities or sub-communities, every identifiable and politically conscious group is now anxious to see its face in the power structure. A national party can accommodate the emergent forces only by cutting down on its inclination towards old connections! 

On examination one finds a clear dichotomy between the population share and the percentage of tickets of various groups as well as a contradiction between the identity of the chosen candidate and the identify of the biggest social group in a constituency. One would also notice substantial omission of mini groups (1-2% in the population), mostly the MBC's among the OBC's. The Congress has to learn to come down the caste ladder and cater to the disinherited, the deprived, the dispossessed. 

To give an other example, the Muslims who constitute 6% of the population of Madhya Pradesh were given 5 tickets while other religious communities which together constitute 3% were given 11! Muslims are the biggest group in Babarpur in Delhi with 40% of the electorate and Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh with 51% Muslims but they were deprived. Such placements or omissions affect the mood of a group throughout the district/parliamentary constituency, if not the region. Incidentally out of a total of 590 seats in the 4 States, the number of Muslim MLAs is just 11, 8 Congress, 1 each, NCP, JD(S) and BJP.

No Exposure of 'Hindutva' Game
The third mistake the Congress made was to presume that the BJP will play the Hindu card. On this presumption, both Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and even Ashok Gehlot, to a lesser degree, donned the saffron robe and competed with the BJP! People saw through their camouflage. They are also wise enough to differentiate between the 'Asli' and the 'Naqli'. The fence-sitters were thus motivated to support the BJP side. In the event, the BJP did not play up the Hindutva agenda overtly. This was a clever move. The BJP did not need to shout the Hindutva slogans from the housetops. Every voter knows what the BJP stands for. Take MP, with Uma Bharati as its Chief Ministerial candidate who would doubt BJP's adherence to the ideology of Hindutva? In Chhattisgarh Judev, perhaps the leading horse in the race for the CM's chair until he was caught red-handed taking money for a futurist deal, was identified with the anti-Christian, Ghar Wapsi campaign among the tribals. And who would fail to notice the RSS and VHP cadre running the campaign at Panchayat and Mohalla level? Inarticulate and invisible, the RSS style whisper campaign and house to house canvassing made the difference for the BJP.

The BJP's strategy created the impression in the media that the BJP had become a mainstream party, it had shed its Hindutva stripes and jettisoned its ideological baggage, cooled its subversive passion and divisive chauvinism. Thus it ensured the swing of the educated middle class, the intellectual, the elite towards the BJP. The Congress should not have allowed the BJP to set the rules of the game. It should have forced the BJP into the open and expose its real face.

The election campaign strategy adopted particularly by Digvijay Singh in MP and by Jogi in Chhattisgarh and to a lesser extent by Gehlot in Rajasthan was to compete with the BJP: total ban on cow slaughter, allotment of public land for Gaushalas and Gau Sadans, alongwith lavish financial grants, ostentatious public visits to Mandirs, construction of Mandirs in public premises, ban on change of religion, the supportive position on the opening of Kamal Maula Masjid in Dhar for regular Hindu worship by the ASI in M.P., poor representation of Muslims in the list of candidates everywhere, were all an indication of the distrust of the secular voters who form the vast majority of the Hindu voters. Every gesture, every articulation, every image was meant to tell the Hindu voter that the Congress leadership is as much 'Hindu' as the BJP's.

Under Utilization of Leadership
The fourth mistake the Congress did was to utilize only the party President Sonia Gandhi and the Chief Minister in the election campaign. The Congress had no dearth of talent. Had it formed an alliance or come to understanding with other secular parties, it would have additional talent at its disposal. The party should have drawn up a detailed constituency plan, within the district plan, and utilized the right people in the right places to woo specific groups. The party President could not possibly visit even all the divisional headquarters. The Chief Minister could not have visited all the districts and certainly not all the constituencies. Every group vote, forming, say, 5% of the electorate in every constituency should have been targetted.

BJP's Superior Management
The BJP had a number of plus points. The most important was Vajpayee's national standing. The Congress itself reduced it to a Vajpayee vs Sonia Gandhi match in which the former had a distinct advantage. 

Another factor that helped the BJP was the modern management of the electoral campaign by Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan aided by abundant resources of manpower and money. Surely the Congress could match them man for man. Through their computerized and micro-level operation, the BJP exploited dissidence, dissociation and rebellion in Congress ranks to its advantage. In many constituencies, it financed candidates who were likely to cut into Congress votes. In others, it encouraged unfriendly voters to sit by and let the Congress procession pass. For example, one line of propaganda orchestrated by the BJP in the Muslim areas was that since both the Congress and the BJP were anti-Muslim the Muslims should support neither. The message was that either you sit at home or vote for a losing candidate of a minor party. In either case, it would help the BJP as very few Muslims would have voted for the BJP, in any case.

Anti-incumbency operates at 3 levels - the party in power in the Centre, the party in power in the State and the sitting MLA, if fielded as a candidate. In this election, not only the record of the Congress Governments in the State but the record of the Central Government was on the table. From the word go, the Congress should have attacked the Vajpayee record and tried to connect or relate all the noticeable deficiencies to the deliberate deprivation of the State by a hostile or unsympathetic Centre. But it should have also looked closely into the credentials and popularity of the sitting MLA's. At least 50% of the sitting MLAs (including Ministers) should have been replaced by young faces. This is why the BJP projected new faces for the post of Chief Minister - Vasundhara Raje Scindia in Rajasthan and Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh. It is said that this brought the women voters out to vote, and preferentially for the BJP. In Delhi, perhaps the Congress enjoyed that advantage.

Erosion of Traditional Vote-base
The Congress traditional base has been the Brahmins and Rajputs, the Muslims, the SC's and the ST's. The high caste support has largely tilted towards the BJP. But the Congress should have studied the extent of ideological infiltration in the tribal areas through the Shishu Mandirs, the Seva Bharti and Vanvasi Ashram, all RSS fronts, heavily subsidized by the Vajpayee Government. Through its steady campaign for the Hinduisation of the tribals and the mobilization of local pantheistic culture against conversion to an alien monotheistic religion, Christianity, the BJP has become the dominant force among the tribals. The SC's are also divided. In the last General Elections, the BJP won more SC reserved seats than the Congress. The BSP has is own pockets of influence among the SC's in UP, Punjab, Delhi and MP. Now it has extended its reach to Rajasthan. There was a covert understanding between the Congress and the BSP towards the end, which because of rival candidatures did not work in MP and worked to the detriment of the Congress in Delhi. At least 10 reserved seats were lost in Delhi by the Congress to the BJP because of the under-cutting by the BSP candidates. 

Another interesting fact about reserved constituencies (Assembly or Lok Sabha), consistently ignored by the Congress and other secular parties, is that a substantial number of these seats have a sizeable Muslim electorate, sometimes as high as 25-30%. Any party contesting such seats should keep in mind the extent of acceptability of its candidate by the Muslim electorate which becomes a decisive factor. Why should the Muslim voters come out to vote if the Congress candidate is regarded as unfriendly, if not hostile.

The damage that a humiliated and alienated local leader can do to the Congress on his own turf is classically illustrated by the role of V.C. Shukla as the leader of the NCP. He won only one seat but ensured 20 seats for the BJP by polling 4 to 20% of the total votes polled, with a state aggregate of 8.6%. Similar damage was done by the absence of caste leaders, if they were not seen, nor heard. The Jats of Rajasthan, it is said, largely disowned the Congress. The interesting part is that top Jat leaders like Balram Jakhar and Mirdha were not called into the arena.

BJP's Game Plan, 2004 and Congress Strategy for 2004
It is an essential point of the BJP's strategy for 2004 to create a firm impression among the chatterati, the intellectuals, the educated middle class and the elite that the BJP has renounced Hindutva and turned into a mainstream party, something like the Christian Democratic parties of Europe so that it is no longer untouchable. The BJP's friends in the mass media are all propagating this theory. The fact is that so long as the RSS is committed to its Hindutva ideology and its long-term plan for the Hinduisation of the Indian society and polity and so long as the BJP remains tied to the apron-stage of the RSS, serving it as its political hand-maiden, there is no question of its renunciation of its long-term commitment to Hindutva and to its promotion, by fair means and foul, when in power. During the Assembly election, it was perhaps kept in the low key for the simple reason that the amendment to the Constitution (Article 25, Article 30, Article 370, to name a few), legislation to hand over the disputed site in Ayodhya to the VHP and the construction of the proposed Ram Janambhoomi Mandir thereon, the introduction of the uniform civil code, the steady transformation of the Indian culture into Hindu culture, the saffronization of education from top to bottom, the religious assimilation of Muslims, the complete integration of the State of Jammu and Kashmir in the Union all lie in the Union's domain. It should be taken for granted that the programme of demonization of the Muslims by exaggerated and false allegations of extra-territorial loyalties, Masjids and Madrasas serving Pakistan's ISI, erosion in practice of the minority rights guaranteed in the Constitution, and occasional pogroms shall continue to feature on the agenda of the BJP as a party and in government. In the prelude to the coming General Election the Congress must do everything possible to remove this false impression that the leopard has changed its spots.

Open, Frank, Forthright Secularism
The Congress, it appears, did not learn any lesson from its crushing defeat in Gujarat. Demoralization was soon overcome by euphoria over success in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. But the defeat in MP, Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh is not a defeat of secularism. Indeed the BJP has nowhere secured 50% of the votes polled and, therefore, does not enjoy the support of more than 30% of the electorate. But, like in Gujarat, this defeat is the defeat of soft Hindutva by hard Hindutva, of pale saffron by deep saffron. 
So, the first rule for future victory is that the Congress should stand openly, frankly, forthrightly for Secularism against Communalism which is taking a fascist and chauvinist dimension. The Congress should, in the spirit of the Constitution, stand for modernization, against Revivalism and Obscurantism; it should stand for the Constitution, the Rule of Law, the Human Rights and the Rights of the Minorities but against Special Rights for any group. Why should the Congress profess Secularism so coyly, almost with a sense of foredoom? 

Mobilization of Secular Forces
The second rule is that the Congress should not shirk its historic responsibility to mobilize the secular parties, rising above clash of egos or conflicts of the past. It MUST take the initiative to invite all secular parties which have secured even one seat in the Lok Sabha in 1999 and/or secured at least 5% votes in any state for a national level discussion to work out a common approach as well as a common list of candidates. It is not impossible to devise a reasonable scheme for division of seats, primarily based on conceding to a party the seats won by it and the seats in which it was the runner-up to the BJP/NDA allies in 1999.

Candidature by Social Demography
The third rule is to analyze the social demography, constituency by constituency, and ensure that the candidate in the constituency belongs to the biggest [or the second biggest, in case the biggest is seen as committed to the BJP] social group, within a state-wise total, for a group proportionate to its population in the State. The personal credentials of a candidate should be critically examined for his reputation among the people as well as his acceptability to all the social groups, which matter.

Open Attack on Vajpayee Record
Fourthly, to take advantage of the anti-incumbency factor, every aspect of the Vajpayee Government's performance should be critically examined and its failures should be highlighted and widely publicized from now on in all national languages and not only in English. This should also cover its poor achievements in respect of the myriads of development schemes announced by it and its bulging portfolio of scams, the personal and collective harvest reaped by the front organizations of the Parivar, the subservience of the Vajpayee government to the extra-constitutional authority of the RSS leadership at home and to forces of globalization outside.

Collective Leadership
Finally, the Congress should build up a pattern of collective leadership from the national down to constituency level, embracing all friendly social groups which matter at a given level.

The Congress, at the head of the secular parties can yet save the country and put it back on the rails. But the Congress has to mobilize all secular forces (70% of the people), the OBC's, the Religious Minorities, the SC's and the ST's and fire their imagination through collective endeavour in terms of ideology, strategy, candidatures and programmes. The defeat in the Semi-Final can be turned into a victory in the Final.

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