Wednesday, November 11, 2009

BYPOLLS: MANY SURPRISES, MORE IN STORE

In the recent bypolls in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, Mayawati and Mamata have emerged triumphant. While Mamata Banerjee was expected to do reasonably well, many believed that the Congress would put up a very good show in UP.

The "Rahul Wave" created in some sections of the media after the Lok Sabha elections in May this year has almost evaporated in UP within six months. Mayawati, who was humbled then, has perhaps surprised even herself by bagging nine out of 11 seats. This despite - perhaps because of - the intense media campaign against her statue-building spree. That this victory has come on top of her winning three of the four seats for which elections were held in August, makes the blip in May stand out even more. The Congress has wrested two seats and lost two that it had held earlier, while the SP and the BJP have drawn a blank.

In keeping with dynastic tradition, Rahul Gandhi is being given all the credit for the defeat of Mulayam Yadav's daughter-in-law in his home turf, Firozabad. What is being conveniently overlooked is that it is the BSP, not the Congress, that has won the Bharthana seat vacated by Mulayam Yadav's son. Both these results underline the fact that the SP has been routed in its fortress. This is a least expected body blow that Mulayam Yadav will find hard to take. For various reasons, the balance of political power appears to be shifting decisively away from him.

The BJP, thanks to the total vacuum of credible leadership in the state and its comatose central High Command led by Rajnath Singh - perhaps the worst leader the party has thrown up in UP - has been humiliatingly routed. Not only has it failed to win a single seat, it has lost security deposits in all constituencies barring its erstwhile stronghold Lucknow West, and Jhansi. How much more punishment its failed top leaders and strategists are going to inflict on the party before they are removed is a question that needs to be openly debated in the party.

In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is continuing her triumphant march that began in the Lok Sabha elections, by winning all the seven seats her party contested. But shockingly, the CPM has failed to win a single seat. Just three years back, the Left Front had stormed back to power with a three-fourths majority. But, thanks to Singur and Nandigram, the Left is, suddenly being wiped out in a manner that no one would have dreamt of a couple of years back. Cumulative failures of the past two decades are beginning to hurt and haunt the communists, ironically because of the reforms they belatedly initiated to undo the colossal and almost irreparable damage they inflicted upon the society and the state during their long and uninterrupted rein.

These results have tempted most analysts to write off the SP and BJP in UP, and the Left in West Bengal. That may well happen if things continue the way the are. Can anything swing things dramatically again?

In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is benefitting from the anger against the communists. The Marxist onslaught has, among other things, created such a leadership vacuum in the state that there is no other leader behind whom its people can rally against them. Is she really the alternative that voters are looking for? Will she be able to take the state forward or will she plunge it into even greater inertia and violence? Given her track record, it is almost a given that things will get only worse if and when she gets into the saddle. But even before that happens, just as the communists are paying for a couple of mistakes, Mamata might just hurt herself badly; a small slip is all it will take for voters to go back to the commies or a progressive break-away faction led by someone with the kind of vision that the many great leaders and thinkers of Bengal had once shown to the whole of India.

In UP, can the Mulayam Yadav dynasty really be written off because of the Firozabad defeat? Can it also be safely assumed that those who have deserted the BJP will not hurry back to it again? If the Congress is seen to be courting Muslims in a divisive manner and pandering to the mullahs who are now openly rejecting secularism, things can change overnight with one wrong decision, provided there is a good leader to exploit it without engaging in mindless communal provocation. It may be recalled that one reason for the BJP holding the gains it had made in UP was the no-nonsense and decisive leadership shown by Kalyan Singh as Chief Minister, something that the state had perhaps never seen before in the long years of Congress rule. May be that is one reason why Mayawati is holding her own, despite serious corruption charges - there is no honest and effective counterfoil available in any other party today. May be that is one reason why brand Gandhi has failed to work for decades in its home state. If the Congress can find and project a new, credible alternative, who knows what might happen! Or if, following the example of kings of yore who treated their marriages as political, even military, force multipliers, Rahul Gandhi marries a dalit girl from the state, it is more than likely Mayawati may never recover.

It may be recalled that in the couple of years preceding the Lok Sabha elections this year, the Congress had lost the assembly elections in most states that went to the polls. But in the final round that mattered the most, it delivered an unexpected knock-out punch to the BJP. The many surprises in these bypolls also suggest that no political party can take anything for granted based on past electoral results. If anything, they should expect to be surprised in future.

Given our fundamentally flawed and society-dividing model of democracy, a few slip-ups and a slight re-alignment of political and social combinations is all it takes to upset all calculations and projections and produce unexpected results that, as we saw in the recent Maharashtra elections, can hide unacceptable failures. No wonder independent India has produced so few great leaders of the calibre and integrity that the freedom struggle threw up.

This is the age of Mayas, Mamatas and dynasties.