By Jason Miks
Last year was a difficult one for the ruling parties in many of the world's democracies. In the United States, Britain and Japan the public have, for different reasons, grown increasingly wary of their government, while in Australia the incumbent party was turfed out after 11 years in office.
On the surface at least, such discontent was also evident in India, where early in the year the ruling Congress Party suffered defeats in state elections in Punjab and Uttarakhand before being roundly beaten in the nation's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. This was followed last month by defeats in the western state of Gujarat, where Congress rival the Bharatiya Janata Party picked up 117 of 182 seats in the state's legislative assembly, and the north western state of Himachal Pradesh, where Congress was ejected after picking up just 23 seats - 18 fewer than last time.
The race in Gujarat sparked particular interest both because of its charismatic and controversial leader, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and the fact that observers had speculated that a Congress win there might prompt the party to call an early general election, which is due some time in the next 18 months.
The state has posted strong economic growth under Modi, a member of the BJP. But he was embroiled in controversy six years ago after being accused of complicity in violence by mobs of Hindus against minority Muslims in early 2002 that saw, even according to official estimates, about 1,000 people killed, and tens of thousands displaced.
The violence was sparked by the deaths of 58 people after a railway coach was torched in Godhra, an attack that Modi said was preplanned by Muslims. He has since been accused by rights groups of, at the very least, failing to take adequate measures to prevent the violence.
"There was a possibility of advancing national elections if Congress had won Gujarat, but that won't happen now," argues Dr. P. Radhakrishnan, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in India.
He says it is the outspoken Modi himself that explains much of the BJP's success in Gujarat. "Regional parties have been on the rise and Modi is a regional leader. Congress does not have anyone of the caliber of Modi in Gujarat," he says. "Modi set the terms of the
political debate and Congress was only responding to his agenda."
Prof. Iftikhar H. Malik of Bath Spa University in England says the Congress response to this agenda was disappointing.
"The Congress had the opportunity to expose Modi's pernicious policies...but somehow failed to capitalize," he says. "Muslims account for 9 percent of Gujarat's population and certainly this mass of underprivileged people must be feeling even more insecure in a state where official machinery is notorious for culpability."
Radhakrishnan believes that Congress' failure in Gujarat reflects a broader weakness. "My own assessment is that Congress will lose in the next election and the BJP will come back again," he says, arguing
that the party has a dearth of effective leadership at the national level.
"[Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh was speaking as if he was in a classroom and [Congress President] Sonia Gandhi as if she were just
reading out text. These things don't go down well with the public."
However, James Manor, Emeka Anyaoku Professor at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, is more upbeat about Congress' prospects.
"Opinion polls show that nationally, their popularity is not too bad considering they've been in power for three years," Manor says.
He also points to the poor record that incumbents at the state level have in India, and believes this will work in the Congress' favor during national elections as votes are typically cast based on state-level factors. "If you look at the country as a whole, Congress
is not actually governing a lot of the states, which will help them."
Indeed, he argues that it could actually be the BJP that faces the bigger problems in a national poll.
"The BJP is actually in some difficulty because the big vote winner, [former prime minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, has ruled himself out, and the next generation of leadership in the party, including its colorless president, is not attractive," he says.
Manor also believes that the controversy surrounding figures like Modi could begin to hurt the party at a national level.
"If the BJP approaches the next election with Modi looming large, it will hurt the BJP nationally because India isn't split nationally along Hindu-Muslim lines. The BJP could start to look like a threat
and many smaller parties that considered working with the BJP will be put off."
Malik agrees that the BJP should be wary about becoming too closely associated with figures such as Modi.
"It is not just Muslims or the plural traditions of India which remain vulnerable to a so-called majoritarianism. It is also the underprivileged Hindu groups and other religious minorities who must be feeling gravely apprehensive," Malik says. "Let us not forget that in the closing days of December about 40 churches were attacked in Orissa, causing immense human misery and material loss."
Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Managing Editor of International Affairs Forum
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