By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS
NEW DELHI- The political tide seems to turning in favor of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the party having registered a win in Himachal Pradesh within less than a week of returning to power in Gujarat. The BJP is hopeful that these wins would help the party spread saffron influence in Delhi, Karnataka and return to power at the national level in 2009. As expressed by senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, â€œThe victory is not limited to Himachal and Gujarat. It is a trailer of Lok Sabha elections.â€
Not surprisingly, the BJP vice president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has stated that with the partyâ€™s victory in Himachal Pradesh, their senior leader L.K. Advani has inched closer to the prime ministerial position. â€œBack to back results in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are pointer to things which will help the BJP to gain power at the center. The poll outcome in the two states is inching Advani towards the PMâ€™s chair,â€ Naqvi said.
â€œGujarat and Himachal will decide the course of national politics,â€ Naqvi said. â€œWhile the Congress was swept away in Himachal Pradesh in an anti-incumbency wave, it did not happen in Gujarat where the party has been in power for the past 12 years,â€ he said.
Without doubt, the year has not spelt much success for Congress in assembly elections. The party failed to register notable gains in Uttar Pradesh, where the mandate went heavily in favor of Mayawatiâ€™s Bahujan Samaj Party. Compared to four assembly elections won by National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including Punjab and Uttarakhand, Congress has been able to secure victory only in Goa.
Against this backdrop, BJP has reason to be confident about making its mark elsewhere too, while Congress leaders are still deliberating on where have they failed. With the latest victory in Himachal Pradesh, following that in Gujarat, 10 states are led by NDA government, one short of Congress ruled states.
Narendra Modi was administered the oath as Gujarat chief minister on December 25, while Prem Kumar Dhumal was sworn in as Himachal Pradesh chief minister on December 30. Dhumal is the stateâ€™s 16th chief minister, since it was formed in 1971. Dhumal headed the Himachal BJP government for the first time from 1998 to 2003, the only non-Congress chief minister of Himachal Pradesh to have completed a full tenure in office.
Dhumalâ€™s rise in Himachal politics is also linked with his proximity to Modi, who was party-in-charge of Himachal Pradesh from 1997 to 2001. Modi did not enjoy good relations with Shanta Kumar, the other BJP candidate in the race for Himachal Pradeshâ€™s chief ministerial position. Kumar distanced himself from Modi following BJPâ€™s defeat in 2004 parliamentary elections. While campaigning in Himachal Pradesh, Dhumal and Kumar had put their rivalry in the background.
In contrast to the political wave favoring BJP, the Congress has been faring dismally. Within a week of not being able to wrest power from BJP in Gujarat, Congress has lost Himachal Pradesh too to the party. Undeniably, the success gained by NDA through 2007 does not rest on BJPâ€™s national image or its Hindutva drive. Neither does it rest on popular mandate held by any BJP leader across the country. It may be noted, NDAâ€™s success is strongly linked with the importance the alliance has given to regionalism and state-oriented development plans. Undeniably, the Congress leaders have also given some importance to including development agenda in their campaigns. However, the Congress has failed to put forward any effective regional leader against BJP-candidate Modi in Gujarat and Dhumal in Himachal. It is also held, with these two elections being held around the same time, the Congress gave more importance to Gujarat than to Himachal, only to fail in both the states.
The Congress is also deliberating on why has the anti-incumbency factor worked in Himachal but failed in Gujarat. In Himachal Pradesh, with the people angry against increasing unemployment, crime and corruption, BJPâ€™s anti-incumbency factor worked, pushing Congress to opposition. It may also be noted that Dhumal, owing to having earlier served as chief minister in this hill state, is known as â€œsadak wala mukhya mantri,â€ (chief minister responsible for roads). In Gujarat, there is no doubt that the Congress failed to prop up any significant Gujarati leader against Modi. BJPâ€™s success in Gujarat followed by that in Himachal Pradesh does not rest simply on its own campaign but also on failure of the Congress to counter the same effectively.
There is a chance that ahead of 2009 parliamentary elections, the Congress may gain from incumbency factor and succeed in assembly elections scheduled in BJP-ruled states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. But with the anti-incumbency factor having failed Congress in Gujarat, the party cannot be too confident about its prospects elsewhere too. It is time that Congress leaders wake up to the hard fact, the need of giving greater importance to regional leaders. The partyâ€™s failure in Gujarat, followed by that in Himachal Pradesh indicates that senior Congress leaders like Sonia Gandhi can certainly attract crowds, but not enough votes, during their campaigns!