This was one of the most protracted and competitive contests in recent times which took on, needlessly so, the hues of a national slugfest. Even in the state polls in UP last year or in Bihar two years ago, there was not as much politics and campaign energy as in this. Even before it started, it was treated as a sort of national referendum by all sides and by the media, and too much artificial pride and momentum were built into it. The result of this high-pitched campaigning was a huge voter turnout 67 per cent in Rajasthan and 65 in MP. These are record figures, the highest for either state since they were formed and surpassing the 63 per cent turnout in the bitter Gujarat assembly polls last year.
High voter turnout is good. What is not, however, is that some wrong lessons may now be imbibed and accepted as part of the common wisdom. And that is why it is worth noting a couple of interesting points.
First, any sense of a strong BJP renewal in the whole country is an untested premise, if not simply false. The campaigns in all four states revolved around local issues, local promises and local personalities. In Chhattisgarh, it was the personality-based politics of Jogi, in Rajasthan it was the drought relief done by Gehlot, and so on. With the exception of the NCP, which could perhaps emerge to become a small force in Chhattisgarh, regional and Third Front parties played a minimal role in all four states. The contest here was essentially between two national parties, quite a different scenario from national elections where various combinations and permutations, and hence various compromises and anxieties, come into play. What just happened was a two-way fight, but a national poll is far more complex. Win or lose in this round, neither the BJP nor Congress can come to power at the centre without strong and sustainable coalitions.
Second, the verdict at this time may be belied by political plays and machinations currently being set in motion in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Given a fractured verdict, the BJP is far more likely to form the government in the former and the Congress in the latter, but either way, both states now promise to have shaky regimes which will be pliable to inducements, populism and coups. Not a healthy prospect for the country or for either the BJP or Congress, that is if they want to steer clear of controversies and embarrassing alliances that could hurt them during national polls.
Rajasthan is a good example, where the battle was almost entirely local issues-based but also highly reliant on unviable promises. Unlike the other three states, there were minimal googlies in Rajasthan from outside the state: no major corruption scam, no large-scale loss of jobs due to rampant privatisation and no Ayodhya-related fireworks this time. But the most contentious, and perhaps the most crucial issue, in determining the final tally could well turn out to be caste-based reservation which has been given a new lease of life by promises and prevarications of both sides.
In the end, the question now being earnestly debated in Delhi is whether the Vajpayee government will opt for early national elections, pumped up as it must be by these results At least, common sense seems to suggest so. Despite all the uncertainties mentioned so far, what Mr Vajpayee must surely be thinking is why delay and risk a bad monsoon, especially when many if not most economic and political indicators point upwards.
(The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors)