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Victory of '03 and onions of '98

By A K Diwanji in New Delhi
December 05, 2003 14:47 IST
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Thursday's rout of the Congress in three states is a sweet revenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Not many in the BJP have forgotten the drubbing the party suffered in three state -- Delhi, Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh was a part of MP then) and Rajasthan -- in 1998. But they also know that the '98 defeat may have paved the way for the '03 victory -- and that is why the revenge tastes sweet.

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One issue that did the BJP in 1998 was the sky-rocketing prices of onions. North Indian diet makes extensive use of onions and the Congress made it its main poll plank. The BJP, then ruling at the Centre and in Delhi and Rajasthan, suffered a humiliating defeat.

But in the defeat, the party learnt its lessons well. The message was clear -- while issues such as Ram temple and uniform civil code were issues of some value at a particular moment, basic issues linked to common people's lives would always dominate.

It was this lesson in mind that the BJP went into the 2003 elections clear that it would make development and governance its twin poll plank.

The BJP called it the BSP plank: bijlee (power), sadak (roads), and pani (water). And the state governments were made answerable for not providing them or not providing them sufficiently.

The themes of development and governance also announced Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's victory over the party hardliners, still stuck on the themes of Ram temple, scrapping of Article 370 (which grants some privileges to Jammu and Kashmir), and a uniform civil code.

The question now was, how to take this new agenda to the masses? It was felt that that old, tired personalities would not be able convey the message convincingly to the people.

Here, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani, whose voice in party matters still counts the most, played a crucial role. Uma Bharati was chosen to head Madhya Pradesh over ageing leaders such as Sunderlal Patwa. Vasundhara Raje was sent to Rajasthan in face of some tough opposition from the state unit of the party and in Chhattisgarh the party chose Dilip Singh Judeo.
Bharti has for long been a leading light of the BJP's second-rung leadership and is an OBC (other backward classes).

In Rajasthan, the party had faced a void after Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was elevated to the vice-president's post. The rout of 1998 had left behind few people to take on Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was perceived as being clean and efficient.

Vasundhara Raje was picked up for her impeccable credentials. Though she hails from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, she has won five Lok Sabha elections from Jhalawar in Rajasthan. Also, she belongs to the Scindia family, the erstwhile rulers of Gwalior. Royal lineage matters much in Rajasthan.

Being married to the Maharaja of Dholpur, a Jat, she had the potential to swing that influential group in the party's favour. She herself claimed Rajput status (she is actually a Maratha caste, but in north India, this caste is associated with Rajputs).

And finally, her mother, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, was the pre-eminent woman leader in the BJP, thus making her acceptable to all.

Vasundhara Raje was appointed the BJP's Rajasthan unit's president in 2002. She immediately began touring the state, visiting every district and as many villages as humanly possible, getting a feel of the problems her people were facing.

Rajasthan was reeling under drought, and though the government had many schemes in place, not all of them reached the worst affected. Vasundhara Raje had seen a breach in the Congress fort.

In Chhattisgarh, the party chose Dilip Singh Judeo, who is actively involved in converting tribals from Christianity to Hinduism. The fact that he hails from a small royal family was also a plus.

Only in Delhi did the party stick to its veteran, M L Khurana. The BJP Delhi unit had seen terrible bickering in 1998, costing the party dear. To avoid such bickering, Khurana was chosen well in advance and his main rival, Sahib Singh Verma, was made a minister in the central government.

Within the party, Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan were placed in-charge of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,  respectively. They worked in tandem with the state units, sharing information and strategy.

Almost all opinion polls were predicting a BJP win in Madhya Pradesh; the huge power cuts and pathetic condition of roads had turned people away from the Congress. It was a state waiting for a change.

In Rajasthan, the battle was tougher. The party played the caste card -- it won over the Jat votes. Jat voters believed that a Jat would become chief minister in 1998; the appointment of Gehlot (an OBC) saw them turn to the BJP. And to ensure that the caste groups opposed to the Jats (such as the Rajputs and Brahmins) also stayed with the BJP, at the last minute the party got Shekhawat (a Rajput) to discreetly speak to his fellow caste men.

Then there were the rebels. As a BJP worker explained, the party focused on the 95 constituencies it had held till 1998 and the 30-odd constituencies where the Congress had rebels. The tactic worked brilliantly. The BJP too had a few rebels, but being a far more disciplined and better organised party, they had only a limited effect.

Besides Gehlot and Sonia Gandhi, Congress did not have any campaigner of importance. Girija Vyas did campaign, but she has little clout. Rama Pilot might have been more effective in mobilising the Gujjar votes in the name of her late husband, Rajesh Pilot, but was tied down to Jhalrapatan constituency.

In Chhattisgarh, the BJP targeted Ajit Jogi, who had become quite unpopular, something even the Congress party was aware of and admitted as much. Congress sources, in fact, said that party was all set to replace Jogi had it won in Chhattisgarh. Worse, Jogi's son, Amit, was seen as corrupt and arrogant, a bit like Sanjay Gandhi.

The Congress also overplayed the Judeo episode. The Indian Express had procured tapes showing Judeo allegedly accepting a bribe; the Congress went hammer and tongs at him on charges of corruption. That backfired, and badly.

The BJP went on the counter-offensive. Vajpayee, Advani and other leaders in their speeches asked why the Congress tolerated corrupt members within its ranks and hinted that the tapes were a Congress ploy to discredit Judeo. News reports that Amit Jogi knew about the tapes beforehand only added grist to the mill. The people clearly appeared to believe the BJP rather than the Congress.

But as a BJP source pointed out, corruption is never a big issue in India. "People today want development and good governance and will even tolerate a bit of corruption. The Congress does not understand that," he said.

Only in Delhi did the BJP fail to read the writing on the wall. In persisting with ageing Khurana, the party failed to see that he simply lacked a rapport with the new generation voters in this growing metropolis.

Most of Delhi's most dramatic development activities came at the behest of the Supreme Court (which ordered all public buses to use the non-polluting compressed natural gas instead of diesel) or the central government (which planned the metro rail). But it was Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and the Congress party who appeared to be behind them all and got the credit.


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A K Diwanji in New Delhi