With the state elections on the horizon, Congress (which leads the national ruling coalition), under pressure after a series of corruption scandals and for failing to pass any major legislation since being re-elected in 2009, wanted to pass the Lokpal Bill to strengthen its floundering position. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was equally determined to deny its rivals a leg-up, taking cover behind the assertion by civil society groups that the Bill was not good enough. Regional parties, even those in the Congress-led alliance, were similarly unhelpful, being more focused on their state constituents than national concerns. The result was that the Bill was passed by the Congress alliance controlled lower house but failed to clear the upper house, where the alliance was weaker.
The inevitable blame game is already in full gear as polls in five states draw near. Two key ones will be in the medium size northern state of Punjab and the smallish Uttarakhand on 30th January, but these will be sideshows compared with the all-important prize of Uttar Pradesh, a largely agrarian state in the Hindi-speaking northern heartland that is the country’s most populous state with 200 million people, which will be held over seven-phases in February.
The BJP will be hoping that its antics in Parliament can help buttress its current weak position in the state polls. It is the weakest of four major parties in Uttar Pradesh, and is on track to lose both Uttarakhand (where it rules alone) and Punjab (where it is part of the governing coalition) in part due to poor performance as well as corruption scams. To blunt the impact of these scams, the party has tried to make corruption its issue, with a senior party leader undertaking a high-profile two-month yatra (i.e. procession) across the country attacking Congress over corruption.
The BJP also led the protest in Parliament over the supposed threat to small shop-owners (keen supporters of the party) and farmers (a major constituent in Uttar Pradesh) from Congress’ decision to relax investment restrictions by big foreign retailers. The weeks-long face off with Congress resulted in half the session being washed out.
Congress therefore seems to be on the back-foot. It was forced into an embarrassing climb down over the foreign retailer issue. Its failure to pass the Lokpal triggered heckles from the media for poor floor management in Parliament; awkwardly, during the defeat of one of the Lokpal-related Bills over a dozen of its own legislators were absent.
Yet it is probable that Congress will ride out its present difficulties. It has argued, somewhat plausibly, that its efforts to combat corruption through the Lokpal were frustrated by its opponents. Its Food Security Bill, introduced in Parliament but yet to pass, which aims to provide highly subsidised food to the vast number of poor citizens, seems like a sure vote-winner.
Further to Congress’ advantage, local issues usually matter more than national ones in state polls. The party is in a strong position to regain Punjab and Uttarakhand, which both have a history of alternating between Congress and the BJP (and its allies); Congress is also likely to retain the other two small states going to the polls – Goa and Manipur – albeit by diminished margins.
In Uttar Pradesh, Congress’ main rivals are not the BJP but the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – a Dalit (the formerly untouchable caste)-based party – and the Samajwadi Party (SP), whose core constituencies are the Muslims and some of the backward castes. The BJP, plagued by infighting and with no clear leaders in the state, is not expected to do very well.
On the other hand, Congress has been led by an increasingly confident Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s leading Nehru-Gandhi family and great grandson of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who has invested considerable energy and prestige in the ongoing campaign to win back a state which was once Congress’ bastion. Under Mr Gandhi (whose Parliamentary seat is in the state), the party has made inroads in the Muslim and backward caste vote in the state, as evident from its much improved performance there in the Parliamentary elections in 2009. With the BSP likely to be undermined by allegations of corruption, the anti-incumbency vote is also up for grabs.
The party though is still plagued by poor organisation and a lack of viable candidates, compared with the BSP and SP which have more entrenched networks. It helps that expectations about Congress are fairly low, as the party has only a paltry 22 seats in the 403-member assembly. The reputation of Mr Gandhi, for long the heir-apparent to the current PM, is on the line, particularly since he was associated with the party’s dismal tally from the last state poll in 2007.
Still, Indian elections have a refreshing tendency to surprise. The BSP won big in 2007 by forging an unexpected alliance with its backers’ bête noire, the upper castes, and its state government has done reasonably well with Uttar Pradesh registering real economic gains during its term. On the other hand, an improved performance from Congress might provide Mr Gandhi with an opportunity to take up a national job. It could also help to prop up the Congress-led government at the center, perhaps even giving it new impetus in its remaining term. That would be something India sorely needs.