Assembly Elections: The great Indian voting paradox

The Congress’ defeat in the assembly elections was not only because of anti-incumbency but also due to the rise of a voting class that is moving from caste-based politics to aspiration-based lobbying

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

 

The elections to the five state assemblies were to be a test of how badly the Congress has been hurt by corruption scandals and poor quality of governance and also about the vote-snaring capabilities of the BJP’s Narendra Modi. The results, though not entirely unexpected, have cast a long shadow over how the Congress party will perform in the 2014
Parliament elections.

The Congress did not just lose, but was savaged in the polls. It failed to save its bastion, Delhi, or reclaim MP and Chhattisgarh from the BJP. In Rajasthan, it put up an abysmal show.

In Delhi, the Congress was felled by an upstart, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), that walked away with its entire support base, comprising people living in jhuggi-jhopri colonies and other former voters. The party lost a 16 percent vote share, suggesting that the anti-incumbency wave just smothered whatever chances it had nursed in the Delhi elections. Pinning all hopes on a Teflon-coated Sheila Dikshit fighting off both the BJP and AAP proved to be misplaced. Dikshit not only lost to Arvind Kejriwal, who displayed raw courage in taking on the incumbent, but also lost badly — by a whopping 25,00- odd votes. Evidently, the Congress had not read the people’s anger against wanton corruption and arrogance of the ruling elite. The party had no solutions to tackle the double anti-incumbency. Worse, Dikshit was abandoned by the central leadership when it became clear that she got no response from her supporters.

However, the truly remarkable story is that of AAP and Kejriwal. In a space of a few months, Kejriwal not only set up a political party, but is being seen as a possible alternative to both the national parties that can neither summon his creative energy nor the indefatigable spirit of his supporters. What was breathtaking was the manner in which Kejriwal fired the imagination of the people of Delhi to step out of their bubbles and vote. The voter turnout was unprecedented. Voting continued for four hours after closing time to tot up a high of 67 per cent. The extraordinary excitement amongst first-time voters made it clear that the AAP would emerge as a major player. The BJP, which should have reaped the anti-incumbency wave against the Congress, could not capitalize on its prime ministerial candidate’s high-voltage appearance in the capital in a few places. The BJP came second to the AAP in 27 assembly seats, grievously hurting its chances of getting a clear majority. It is the AAP that stopped the BJP from coming to power in Delhi. So was the vote against both the Congress and the BJP?

The voting attitude in Delhi was against the Congress and for change; this desire revealed itself in the high voting turnout for both the BJP and AAP. During the run-up to the Delhi vote, whisper campaigns went around suggesting Kejriwal for CM and Narendra Modi for PM.  Clearly, the rise of the AAP was not shown to contradict or suborn the massive campaign mounted with the BJP’s Modi. However, at some stage, the BJP got nervous by the phenomenal popularity of the AAP and began to rubbish it, alleging it was in cahoots with the Congress. By then, the AAP juggernaut was in top gear and upsetting many a nifty calculation. In hindsight, the only poll figure that came close to being correct was the one used by the AAP as poster material during their election campaign.

Why did the Congress do so badly in Delhi and elsewhere? Delhi, which was to showcase the best of the Congress in terms of what it did for the capital – the Metro, urban infrastructure, inclusivity – could not stand up to the high tide of anti-incumbency.

In Rajasthan, the results were even more shocking. Former CM Ashok Gehlot had come in for praise for initiating an array of social policies aimed at the poor and needy. The Rajasthan government had made medicines and treatment available for free, for people and cattle. There were policies granting pension to the old and infirm. However, the groundswell proved to be for the BJP instead, which won a landslide victory.  Gehlot admitted that he had not expected such a serious drubbing. He hinted at the anti-Congress wave sweeping his state and blamed the BJP leadership for peddling lies against his government. The core constituencies that had voted the Congress to power had deserted the party, despite the free medicines and pensions. There is no denying the big impact Modi had in peddling dreams to those who wanted to rise above the dole economy. Media reports showed Rajasthani voters glowingly talking about the remarkable changes in Gujarat, with its 24/7 power, water and development. So, while the people of Rajasthan experienced a boost in their fortunes, the affluence also sparked off aspirations that Gehlot’s economic model could not meet. Modi, in their view, was the go-to leader. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, who worked hard to wrest the state from Gehlot, also gained from Modi’s campaign.

It was the Modi factor again at work in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress was expected to bag Chhattisgarh, especially after the gunning down of their most important state leaders in Bastar earlier in the year. Intelligence reports had lulled the Congress into a smug state, but again the dice rolled differently. The BJP managed to win this state by a whisker. In Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popularity was to surmount the anti-incumbency against his government, the BJP’s campaign was more aggressive and coherent. Although the state continues to be poorly governed, Chouhan managed to leverage his little achievements better than whatever the Congress was promising. Worse, it could also not live down the mess Digvijay Singh had made 10 years ago. While many would quibble that Modi was not a factor in Bhopal, his muscular campaign helped to rake in the support of those who have been distressed by a weak UPA government in Delhi.

The election results of the assemblies provide important clues to what is happening on the ground. In Delhi, for example, the AAP ate into the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). This is the first time that BSP votes have fallen. In Delhi, it fell by 10 percent. Famous for transferring its votes to other political parties, the moot question is, did the BSP actually lose these votes or quietly transfer it to others? If the BSP had hung on to its support base, the Congress would not have been hurt so badly. If we take the fall in votes of the BSP at face value, it could mean that the lower castes are disengaging from their preferred caste-based parties and voting for those leaders who can meet their aspirations. Modi has been hoping to bring about social engineering through a high-pitched campaign on national and development issues to slice though caste and communal considerations. Although this is a ruse, for the simple-minded, fed on a daily diet of aggressive anti-Congress rhetoric, he stands as a powerful option.

In other states too, the phenomenon of diminishing presence of the BSP and other caste-based parties is visible. The strong appeal of Kejriwal in Delhi and Modi in other states is shrinking the space for the Congress and other caste-based parties. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will gain momentum or be questioned in areas where the percentage of minorities is higher. States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the BJP is trying to use both the development agenda to cut through caste lines and sneaky communalism to polarize the economy, could pose interesting questions to the likes of Modi.

Again, in the better governed southern states, Modi’s Gujarat story may find fewer listeners if the regional parties provide tougher resistance. Having said that, the 2014 elections would again test another thesis: Will  Modi’s appeal and AAP’s creative politics go beyond the Vindhyas?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014