Going by the string of eight consecutive victories in State Assembly Elections the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be set to fight the 2008 General Elections on a high and buoyant note. The latest victory in Karnataka has added to its image of embedding itself for the first time in South India on its own strength. However, the pattern in the past has been that the Indian electorate follows different patterns in the General Elections and different priorities in the State Assembly elections as in the case of the latter the local issues and problems predominate.
As the run-up to the 2009 General Elections can be said to be underway now besides the issues of inflation, rising prices of basic necessities and terrorism-induced insecurity, the Indian electorate can be said to be also pondering over the Prime Ministerial candidates each political party would be projecting.
As I wrote in this Column after Modi's victory in the Gujarat Assembly Elections that one reason for Modi's successive victories despite the Indian media being virulently ranged against him was that the Indian electorate was hungry for 'strong, bold and assertive political leadership' The same sentiment can be expected to come into play for the 2009 General Elections also.
So far it is only the BJP which has had the political courage to declare that Shri L K Advani would lead the Party in the General Elections and that he would be the Prime Minister when called to form the Government.
The ruling Congress Party has consistently shied away from naming its Prime Ministerial candidate. In traditional mode of sycophancy there was a call from senior Congress Party leaders that Rahul Gandhi should be the Congress's choice for Prime Minister. After about two weeks of such kite flying the powers to be declared that such demands should stop. However at the same time the Congress Party singularly failed to declare that the current Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh would continue to be the Prime Minister if the Congress was again to come to power.
Political observers read this contradictory silence of the Congress Party on not naming its Prime Ministerial candidate as a strategic reluctance determined by the adverse performance of the Congress in Assembly elections. There was a feeling that if the Congress had come to power in Karnataka then the vocal clamor for Rahul Gandhi to be the next Prime Minister would have been allowed to pick up more steam. But with the loss of Karnataka the Congress leaders were at pains to stress that the Congress defeat was due to the failure of the Congress machinery in the State and that Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi cannot be blame for the loss despite their electioneering in the State.
The Congress Party can still be expected to project at the last moment that Rahul Gandhi as their Prime Ministerial candidate with the aim of making an election issue of 'youth versus old age' of Shri Advani. More so if the Congress Party can win the next two State Assembly elections.
Such a political strategy of the Congress Party has a number of pitfalls. The first one being that except for the Congress others have serious doubts that the iconic political appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty continues to be a strong magnet to win over the electorate. Secondly, if the foregoing reading is correct then with the country facing serious security and economic challenges the electorate may opt for 'maturity, wisdom and experience' that comes with age and long political experience as opposed to the 'youth' factor of a dynastic member.
While the political focus will necessarily dwell on the Prime Ministerial candidates of the two major political parties one cannot lose sight of political dark horses emerging if the electorate again throws a fragmented mandate with regional parties like the BSP or the SP making strong showings and emerging as kingmakers. In that scenario one cannot rule out Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav throwing their hats in the ring for becoming India's Prime Minister.
All in all, the next few months will witness the Indian political scene being constantly churned. But one stills feels tempted to assert that the Indian electorate stands disillusioned by empty political slogans like secularism and wasteful political initiatives of wasting crores of rupees on appeasement of the minority and backward classes vote-banks.
National security especially against terrorism and economic security may emerge as the predominant considerations in the 2009 General Elections.