By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHI â€“ Even before the Congress recovered from the setback it suffered recently in Maharashtra civic polls, it has had to suffer electoral reverses in two more states. Electoral results of three states- Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur, which went to polls recently â€“ were declared last week (February 27). Congress has been pushed out of power in Punjab and Uttarakhand, while it has managed to form the government again in Manipur. With these polls viewed as a mid-term litmus test of Congress heading the United Progressive Alliance at the center, questions are being raised on where has the party erred? In view of electoral results having given a major boost to its key rival, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), speculations are also being raised on whether this spells a danger signal for return of Congress in the next parliamentary elections. Soon after results were declared, even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried minimizing the impact, senior party members and its allies expressed that a lesson needs to be learnt from such an electoral-verdict. Suggesting that state-election results do not project peopleâ€™s dissatisfaction with the center governmentâ€™s performance, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, on the same day: â€œThe election results have no bearing on the central government. They are not a referendum on its performance.â€
The common opinion is that inflation has proved politically expensive for Congress. Union Tourism Ambika Soni, a senior Congress leader, openly admitted that price rise was a reason for the partyâ€™s defeat in Punjab and Uttarakhand. Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and his party (Rashtriya Janata Dal) members accosted Congress President Sonia Gandhi in her office in Parliament House. They said that the countryâ€™s GDP (gross domestic product) or economic â€œgrowthâ€ had little relevance for the common people who understood the prices of their daily-use items, such as â€œpulses.â€
It may be noted, while presenting the budget (2007-08) in Lok Sabha (February 28), Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said: â€œThe biggest plus is that the growth rate of GDP has improved from 7.5 per cent in 2004-05 to 9 per cent (Quick Estimate) in 2005-06 and, according to Advance Estimate, to 9.2 per cent in 2006-07. The average growth rate in the three years of the UPA Government is, therefore, 8.6 per cent.â€ He also acknowledged that â€œconcomitant features of high growthâ€ have â€œexerted pressure on domestic prices.â€ â€œConsequently, average inflation in 2006-07 is estimated at between 5.2 and 5.4 per cent, which is higher than 4.4 per cent last year. I wish to reiterate governmentâ€™s concern over inflation,â€ he said. Howsoever concerned government may be about the inflation-problem, this holds little relevance, till it is controlled effectively. Till of now, inflationary woes have prepared enough ground to question Congress-led governmentâ€™s performance. As expressed by Sitaram Yechury (Communist Party of India-Marxist) on dismal performance of Congress in assembly elections: â€œThe Congress needs to learn its lessons. With the kind of policies they pursue, they couldnâ€™t have expected anything better.â€
Expressing that defeat was a direct result of the policies pursued by the government, CPI (M) said in a statement: â€œIn both states, price rise of essential commodities was a major issue.â€ According to Atul Anjan (Communist Party of India): â€œThis was a litmus test for the Congress, which it failed. They have to change and reschedule their policies. Its policies cannot only serve the interest of the five to six per cent of the urban, upper middle class.â€
BJP has gone further to regard this electoral verdict as a sign of â€œbeginning of the endâ€ for Congress-led government at the center. With eyes on assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), BJP president Rajnath Singh said: â€œUttarakhand was once part of UP. And the poll results indicate the public mood and this is a good message for BJP.â€ Blaming Sonia Gandhiâ€™s leadership for defeat of Congress, former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh said: â€œSonia Gandhi is no longer an electoral asset for Congress.â€ Not sparing Manmohan Singh, he said: â€œHe (premier) was so obsessed with nine per cent growth that he could not see that the people were upset with massive price rise.â€
In 117-member Punjab assembly, against 67 seats won by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP, Congress won 44, with independents getting five. While BJP won 34 in 70-member Uttarakhand assembly, Congress gained 21, Bahujan Samaj Party 8, independents 3 and others 3. In the 60-member Manipur assembly, Congress emerged as the single largest party by winning 30 seats, Manipur Peopleâ€™s Party (MPP) won five, independents 10 and others 15. Apart from having returned to power in Manipur, a consoling factor for Congress is that by itself BJP won 19 of the 23 seats it fought in Punjab.
With this verdict painted as a wake-up call for Congress, it is to be watched as to how does it fair in other elections. Ahead of the 2009 general elections, the Congress has to face assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This year itself, while Uttar Pradesh polls are round the corner, also in line are corporation elections in Delhi, zilla parishad polls in Maharashtra and by the year-end, assembly elections in Gujarat.