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For Cong, no time to party
The recently concluded assembly elections have given the grand old party reason to worry. Voters seem to have made the connection between corruption and the Congress and given a thumbs up to regional leaders. It may be time to think local again.
There was little cheer for the Congress in the results of the just concluded five-state polls. Despite a winning 3-2 score card, the message from diverse electorates is worrying. The total rout in Tamil Nadu and the close call in Kerala scream that corruption is very much a live issue while the Mamata tsunami in West Bengal can only mean more headaches for the party and the Manmohan Singh government from an assertive ally.
Even the handsome victory in Assam - for the third consecutive time - offers little comfort. It only underlines the power of strong regional leaders - in this case, Tarun Gogoi - whose personalities clearly connect better with voters than the famed charisma of the Gandhi family. The point was made emphatically by late Congress leader Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's rebellious son, Jagan Reddy, in faraway Andhra Pradesh too. He won the Lok Sabha by-poll from Kadapa with a stunning margin after an emotional campaign targeting Sonia Gandhi.
While there's plenty to introspect about, it's the Tamil Nadu result that should be of primary concern. This southern state has been a game-changer in national politics in the past and could prove to be one again. AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa hammered away at only two points in her campaign - corruption and the dynastic ambitions of the Karunanidhi family. She struck gold with both to register a sweeping victory across the state. Her performance is as creditable as Mamata Banerjee's in West Bengal. Jayalalithaa fought not only the money and muscle power of the DMK government in the state but also the might of the central government with Union home minister P Chidambaram taking personal interest in the elections to prop up his son, Karti, as a future leader.
Corruption clearly matters to the voter and while the DMK will have to bear the brunt of the rout in Tamil Nadu, the Congress will face the music too. By reducing it to single digits, voters have sent out a clear message that they hold the Congress equally guilty for the corruption scandals clouding the DMK's first family. As the 2G scam closes in on the DMK, the Congress cannot escape collateral damage. At the very least, it must take the blame for sheltering corruption.
What must also worry the Congress is the spillover effect in neighbouring Kerala. Based on its performance in the Lok Sabha polls two years ago, the party should have conquered the state with close to 100 seats. Instead, its UDF alliance scraped through with a bare majority. It was only Left Front chief minister V S Achuthanandan's towering image as Mr Clean that stood in the way of a clean sweep by the UDF. Kerala is a literate state with high levels of national and international awareness. Voters seem to have made the connection between corruption and the Congress, all the more evident from the party's poor individual performance. It won just a little over half of the UDF's seats, which makes it vulnerable to pulls and pressures from demanding allies.
These are testing times for the Congress. A victory in Tamil Nadu would have laid the corruption ghost to rest. Instead the issue is alive and kicking and will continue to haunt the party and government as investigations and court hearings continue. Putting a Suresh Kalmadi or an A Raja in jail has failed to restore its credibility.
Corruption is not the only issue that matters. Voters have sent out other messages that will be read properly only once a detailed analysis of the results is available. But a few quick observations are in order. Mamata's amazing sweep in West Bengal underlines once again the importance of inclusive politics. The Left Front lost West Bengal largely because it alienated its core base of poor and marginal farmers. Its pro-poor image gave way to corporatised branding with the state government opting for fast growth through large-scale industrialisation. Mamata began her victory march in Bengal from Nandigram and Singur, both of which represented the rise of neo-liberal policies at the cost of the poor farmer. As land wars increase in the age of industrialisation, political parties will have to take note of the message from West Bengal where the Left Front fell because of opposition from sections ignored as the "voiceless" millions.
The other important message from these elections is for the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP. Although the latter was not a player in any of the five states, it will have to read the mood of the electorate carefully if it hopes to remain relevant. It is evident that voters are increasingly opting for leaders they can connect to. It could be the regional leader of a national party, like Tarun Gogoi in Assam, or it could be the leader of a regional party, like Mamata and Jayalalithaa. Call it fragmentation or democratisation, politics can no longer be Delhi-centric.
A small state like Puducherry delivered the message too. Here, it was the ousted Congress leader N Rangaswamy who defeated his former party after forging an alliance with the AIADMK. It was a silent protest by voters against the treatment meted out to a local leader by the high command in Delhi.
It's a wake-up call for both the Congress and the BJP who dream of a return to single-party rule. The Congress had thought it was on its way there when it won the 2009 Lok Sabha polls so handsomely. Instead, regional forces have proved that they remain as strong as ever and national parties will have to make room for them, whether as alliance partners or within the party structure. The era of coalition politics is not over.
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