This week has witnessed India's Congress Party losing the Assembly Elections in Punjab and Uttarakhand, both North Indian states. Only in the North Eastern state of Manipur could the Congress Party manage a win. But then Manipur is far removed from the volatile politics of the North India heartland where the tussles for power to sit at the Centre in New Delhi take place.
The Congress Party also lost the bye-election for the Parliamentary seat in Amritsar in Punjab and where the Congress President had made a pointed election visit to shore up the chances of electoral victory of her Party candidate who was the Finance Minister of Punjab in the Congress Government which has just been voted out of power.
Earlier, the Congress Party could not gain victory in the crucial municipal elections in Mumbai, India's premier metropolitan city and the financial capital of India. Here too the Congress President Sonia Gandhi had participated in the election campaign along with the Prime Minister and other senior Congress leaders to ensure a Congress win, despite it being a local election. But the election results went against them.
In all the election campaigns in these states and places the Congress Party focused its entire election campaign on the leadership of the Congress Party in the person of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. She was their national icon and what they believed as their only sanctified ' mantra' to win political elections in India. So far this 'mantra' seems to have worked at the electoral level in India in favor of the Congress Party at least in North India though not fully as the Congress Party has had to form coalition governments both at the national and regional levels.
In Punjab and in Uttarakhand Assembly elections the Sonia Gandhi factor does not seem to have worked at all in bringing back the Congress Party back to power. Nor did it work in Mumbai or in Amritsar. Does it mark the beginning of the decline of the Sonia Gandhi factor and the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic mystique as an over-riding determinant of election victories for the Congress Party in Indian elections?
To answer this question which may offer complex answers, the Punjab elections offer a good case study. A mix of the following factors may explain the Congress loss:
- The Congress failed to retain its seats in its traditionally strong areas where the Scheduled Castes predominated. In fact most of the senior Dalit leaders of the Congress with long political standing fell by the wayside.
- The Congress lost heavily in the urban areas of Punjab which were swept away by the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine.
- The limited gains in rural areas of South Punjab made by the Congress was on the strength of getting issued of what can be termed as a 'fatwa' by a religious leader of the area
- Religion or religious issues were not invoked by the Akalis or the BJP. It was invoked by the Congress.
- Political corruption of the ruling party i.e. the Congress was a troubling concern for the Punjab electorate as this was a widely held perception in the public mind.
- The Punjab Chief Minister was accused of being very inaccessible to the people.
Rural areas, Scheduled Castes and the lower middle class in urban areas have been said to be the traditional strongholds of the Congress. The present results indicate that this sort of political arithmetic is no longer in play.
The strong vote against the Congress in urban areas needs to be analyzed in more than one way. Firstly, it indicates that the middle class has this time come out to vote in large numbers expressing their disgust at the Congress Party's policies of unrestrained reservations especially in the higher education institutions which has generated a lot of concerns about the future of their children. As regards the lower middle class residing in urban areas, development schemes have not reached them and the miserable conditions in which they live.
In the rural areas of Punjab, there have been farmers suicides and wholesale resentment against the Congress Government's acquiring cultivable land for establishing Special Economic Zones seemed to be favoring the rich industrialists surrounding the Chief Minister.
In Uttarakhand too the lack of development schemes reaching the common man and political corruption played their part besides the internal political squabbling within the Congress Party
The Prime Minister has been dismissive of the Congress defeats and has said that nothing much should be read in them. He seems to have forgotten that the Congress Party's election campaign of hailing him as the first Sikh Prime Minister and his many visits to Amritsar in particular could not make a Congress Party victory possible. There is a lot to worry and the Congress Party has to take note of it.
Disillusionment of the Indian public with the Congress Party is the strong message that this string of sequential electoral defeats seems to be sending out. The next big sequential defeat already seems lined up in Uttar Pradesh where even before the elections in April-May, the Congress Party President has been hell-bent on removing the Chief Minister who has been her strong political opponent. One thing is sure is that whoever comes to power there, it would definitely not be the Congress Party. This is despite the fact that the largest state in India was the traditional pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
So, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi seems to have not been questioned or held accountable by her Congress Party for the failure of her charisma to ensure victories in these preceding elections. Her political aides have sought to pass the blame on to local Congress leaders and their failures or to the economic policies of the Congress Prime Minister. The Congress Party is too supine to gather courage to question her.
But today, the Indian public is not supine like the Congress Party. Slowly this disillusionment with the Congress Party will start focusing on Mrs. Sonia Gandhi since it was she who nominated the Prime Minister, it is she who nominates the Chief Ministers in Congress ruled states and it is she who clears the composition of the Union Cabinet and it is she who has not ruled out the inclusion of coalition partners with contingent of tainted Ministers.
With such political trends likely to emerge then the obvious question that will come to the fore is: 'Is the Sonia factor working?'