The UP elections have several messages for political parties and the government; this article will deal with three which are considered very important among them. The first is the message for the two principal national parties, the Indian National Congress and the BJP, that if they do not take the warning signals from the elections seriously, they stand the danger of slipping down further.
The warning signals started for the Indian National Congress in 1989, when in the elections held that year, its strength in the Lok Sabha fell from over 400 to about half of it. Even though the Congress claimed that the general elections of 2004 had registered an upsurge in its fortunes, it was in fact another landmark in its slide down. The number of Congress MPs in ten of the large states, which accounted for 309 seats in the Lok Sabha, had been reduced to a meagre 37 in the 2004 elections. Equally significant is the fact that through a series of elections held for the state Assemblies, the Congress has now become a minority in large states like West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.
2004 also witnessed the beginning of a trend of decline for the BJP when it lost as many as 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. Ironically, it happened when the party had been under the illusion that it was at the height of its political influence. The trend became more conspicuous for the BJP in the byelections and elections to various state Assemblies held in 2005 and 2006. It showed some signs of resurgence when it wrested power from the Congress in Uttarakhand and its alliance partner, the Akali Dal, secured the majority in Punjab in 2007, but its humiliating defeat in UP which reduced its presence to 50 from 88 in 2002 has again sounded warning bells about its vulnerability.
Two major causes for the reverses suffered by the national parties in the elections can be easily identified. One is the poor state of health of the party units at the local levels and the other is their continued reliance on the old techniques of election campaigns in the rural areas where the majority of voters live. While the BSP had been quietly setting up new, and activating existing local committees and entrusting them with the responsibility of convincing the voters about the wisdom of supporting its candidates, the national parties had either no active local units at all in most rural areas or if they existed, they were in a moribund stage, incapable of any useful role in the election campaign. The Congress held on to the illusion that its seats would increase from 25 to at least 40 to 45 because of the high profile campaigns by VIPs from Delhi. The BJP believed that it would improve its tally to well above 150 and will have a major role in the formation of the Cabinet. It even hoped at one stage of the voting that it might get enough number of seats to form a government of its own. But the party which had won 221 seats in 1991, 174 in 1996, and 88 in 2002 was reduced to a low 50 level in 2007 in UP.
The results announced on May 11, 2007 clearly showed how much out of touch the Congress and the BJP had been with the realities about their influence at the constituency levels in UP. The irony of the situation is that their party units in the state were so weak that they were not even conscious of their weakness.
As regards the methods of campaigning in the rural areas, the national parties continued to rely mainly on techniques like organising road shows by VIPs or mass gatherings of the people for listening to the bhashans for a few minutes by leaders from outside descending from the skies in helicopters in their midst. Even such campaigns commenced only just a few weeks before the election day.
The leaders were misled by the crowds that had gathered to see them, but did not know that the voters had already decided on their choices and would turn their back on them as soon as the helicopters and motorcades departed.
The second message from the UP elections is for the BSP and it is that the strategy, which the BSP found very successful in UP may not be relevant in other states. Each state has its own demographic characteristics and the arithmetic of caste alliances relevant in one may not matter at all in another. The formula of the Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim combination could win votes where the Dalits are in large enough numbers to constitute the core base and where Brahmins and Muslims are also in such adequate numbers as to make their association with the Dalits a winning alliance. The BSP will be making a gross mistake if it believes that it has already scripted the obituary of the national parties and that their defeat in UP will soon result in their demise.
The BSP can hope to replicate its performance elsewhere only by proving its capability to provide good governance in UP. There may be trends of decline in the national parties, but they still have strong bases in many states in the country while for the BSP, UP is the only state where it has a solid base. If the BSP thinks that it can pursue its agenda of "Delhi Chalo" riding on the back of "social engineering," without providing good governance in UP, its agenda may turn out to be just a case of wishful thinking.
The third message is for the policymakers at the government level. The Election Commission has deservedly earned praise from all sections of public opinion in the country for the peaceful and impartial manner in which it had conducted the UP elections. But the question that arises now is whether the UP type of election management can be sustained throughout the year, and throughout the country. The UP election was spread over a whole month and the preparation for it had engaged the energies of the Commission and the state administration for another two months earlier. A very large number of supervisory personnel and the Central security forces had been engaged by the Election Commission to ensure smooth polling. Practical experience in several states has shown that with the enforcement of the model code of conduct as soon as the election date is announced, a good part of the development process comes to a standstill.
In India, elections in one state Assembly or the other take place round the year and the entire country remains continuously in election mode for several months of the year.
The Election Commission had always declared its readiness to conduct the elections simultaneously for state and the Central Parliament if such a mandate is entrusted to it but successive governments have been reluctant to take such a decision. The enormous time, labour and expenditure incurred in the UP elections should help in reviving the practice of simultaneous elections for Parliament and the state Assemblies which used to be conducted very smoothly during the early years of our Republic.
Dr P.C. Alexander was the governor of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and is at present a Member of Parliament (RS)