Byline by M J Akbar: POLICY, PROFILE, POLITICS: Match Gives you Game
What wins elections? Policy or profile?
You can lose elections through failed policy but win them through a positive profile. If the profile of a leader has been projected with sufficient dexterity, an incumbent can even overcome the liability of inadequate delivery during the years of governance. In four States where elections are currently underway, the profile of the leader — in all cases the Chief Minister — is running ahead of policy backlash: Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. We cannot be certain of the extent of the positive gap; only the results will confirm whether the Chief Minister, in a sense, has been able to overcome disability by personality. But Sheila Dikshit, Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have this much in common. They all are more popular than the Governments they have led for the past few years.
The easiest call to make is in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, where both the outgoing Chief Minister and the departing Government are in the electoral dustbin. Ghulam Nabi Azad has made no impact on the voter’s consciousness, and his Government is perceived as inextricable from a medley of disasters, the most significant being the utter mishandling of the Amarnath agitation. That failure is only the tip of a bitter, arsenic cake. It is appalling to hear Azad say, on the campaign trail, that he was prevented from creating jobs in the State by his allies. I imagine he could not blame the Opposition, which is why he turned on his erstwhile allies. But if this is true, why was he in bed with them for so long? And if it is not true, why does he think he can fool the Kashmiri people so easily? They are not that gullible.
The National Conference has entered this election with a cogent response. Omar Abdullah has offered a sensible policy framework for a Conference administration, while his father Farooq is the profile. After six years of hopeless misgovernance the Abdullahs should win. They would have been more comfortable if the BJP had not made serious inroads into the Jammu vote. It is unlikely that the valley parties will do well in Jammu. The divide has never been as sharp.
Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh has chased away anti-incumbency with a deft combination of policy and profile. Cheap rice is the centrepiece of his claim to good governance; it would be foolish to discount its appeal in an impoverished State. But his campaign rests on more than just a dole. He has created a comfort zone around his persona without the drama that tends to overwhelm a personality cult. His approach has been forward movement by small, incremental steps rather than any giant leap into the air. He represents consistency. But the challenge from Ajit Jogi should not be underestimated, for among all the Congress challengers [Sheila Dikshit is establishment, not the challenge] he has the best profile. It was a surprise that the Congress seemed to give up the fight in the first phase of voting, reviving only in the second round. The difference could be narrow, either way. The cruel law of first-past-the-post democracy, however, throws garlands at the side with the longer nose. Those who come second get ash for their feed.
Perhaps the most remarkable turnaround has been the story of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. Beset by massive internal sabotage and useless maladministration in the first three years of power, the party was not even in the race till a year ago. The Congress could have swept the State if it displayed the courage to hold a midterm poll for Parliament last summer, when a midterm could genuinely be called a midterm. Its seats in MP would have been solid foundation of a winning presence in the next Lok Sabha. But imperceptibly, almost by stealth, the calm character of Chouhan began to reverse the momentum and revive the BJP.
The Congress has been badly damaged in MP by an overload of profile, and an underload of policy, so that no one is certain who will be what, or do what, in case the party wins. If the party had stuck by the old guard, personified by Digvijay Singh, the Congress would have fared better. Instead it has at least four men claiming sole proprietorship in the State. One of them doesn’t know what to say. A second doesn’t know what not to say. The third issues commandments. The fourth prefers to talk in Delhi rather than Bhopal. I leave it to readers to decipher who is who. It should make an interesting exercise for at least a few minutes during those idle hours between polling and results.
In Rajasthan the Congress was even better placed than in MP, even some months ago. Even today, its chances are better in the smaller State. But once again the BJP Chief Minister has shifted the tide, although it is necessary to add that one cannot be sure of the extent of this shift. Curiously, Vasundhara Raje is both the problem and the potential solution. After all, it is the policy meltdown of her administration that is offering the Congress a chance of victory. But she has used her profile aggressively to compensate for policy shortcomings. She has a particular appeal among women and the young, two of the most determined constituencies in electoral demographics. She is helped enormously by the fact that the Congress contender for her job, Ashok Gehlot, has a jaded faded profile.
The precise opposite is the case in Delhi, where the BJP is carrying the burden of a jaded-faded claimant for Sheila Dikshit’s job. Mrs Dikshit is fighting almost impossible odds. The anti-incumbency current in Delhi is so strong that it could deliver victory even to flotsam and jetsam. But the BJP’s Vijay Malhotra is Mrs Dikshit’s greatest asset. He looks depressed. You can hardly blame Delhi’s voters if they seem reluctant to hand over their city to someone who does not seem to have smiled in a decade. Moreover, the ethnic composition of Delhi has changed. It is no longer a Punjab-centric city. An Arun Jaitley as the projected CM would have won handily, not because of any Punjabi connection but because he represents the modern face of Indian politics. Delhi is above all a modern and cosmopolitan city.
Policy and profile are the current and undercurrent of elections. When they are in harmony, victory will come easily. When they are in conflict, one or the other will prevail. Which one? Check out on 8 December.