Sunday, January 06, 2013

For a few seats more

Byline for 23 December 2012

For a few seats more
M.J. Akbar

Good news. The 21st century Indian voter is non-partisan. Loyalty is yesterday’s story; support is now a consequence of governance and delivery. The rhetoric of parties has changed, which is enormously reassuring, since ideology as practised by Congress, BJP and Marxists, shaped in the 1920s, has long passed its sell-by date.
The Hindus of Himachal Pradesh already have a Rashtra; they want a government to give them jobs and a better life. When they did not get it from BJP, they sent it into Opposition. Gujarat’s BJP CM Narendra Modi won because he delivered an economic surplus which could be objectively quantified. Congress campaigned against Modi on a thin gruel of false accusations and implausible promises like a house for every family on the basis of a promissory note issued from the party office. The poor are never foolish. They have too much at stake in democracy.
Modi got virtually the same number of seats as five years ago, but there was a fascinating variation. Minor turbulence among Patels cost him some 10 seats in Saurashtra. Where did compensation come from? Seven came from constituencies with a predominant Muslim population. This is perhaps why even as astute a lot as some Ahmedabad bookies got this election wrong. They estimated 100 seats or less for Modi; a majority but a significantly different result in both the local and national perspective. We will need more details before we can aver that Modi got enough Muslim votes to tip the result, but a credible opinion poll done before the polls put the figure at 28%, which is a great leap for a man who could not get a single Muslim vote ten years ago after the riots. It is fair to note that this poll gave Modi around 128 seats, so there was marginal over-estimation.
I don’t know how, but the precision of Indian voters is uncanny. Modi won a very comfortable victory, and for good reason, but not a landslide. It is almost as if voters are not just electing a government but also pondering the fallout of their decision. Since it cannot be by calculation, it must be by collective instinct. If Modi had got 20 seats more, as indeed was predicted, Modi would have catapulted from a preferred PM candidate within BJP to a dominant candidate. The electorate gave Modi enough seats to rule Gujarat comfortably, but not enough to run away towards Delhi in a hurry. And the central message of Gujarat is inescapable. Voters prefer butter to guns.
What a difference a few seats can make. Examine this from the other end of the telescope. Rahul Gandhi campaigned in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections earlier this year not to put Congress in power but to establish his personal credibility as architect of his party’s revival. Twenty seats in Gujarat is equivalent, as a percentage of the full House, to about 40 or more in UP. Congress got 28 MLAs in UP; if Rahul Gandhi had won 70 seats he would be Prime Minister of India today. Instead he cannot be sure whether he will become PM even after the next general elections.
Congress abandoned its governing ideology, soft socialism, at least two decades ago. The replacement is lip service and tokenism. But there are dangers in handout-politics as the DMK realised in the last Tamil Nadu elections; they can become counter-productive. They work as a sideline incremental only if the basics are in place. A promise works only if it is credible. It is stupid to believe that the poor are fools.
We have just got an excellent example of the kind of policy decision that does bring electoral dividends. The BJP government in Chhattisgarh, led by Raman Singh, has initiated a food security programme. This is hardly original: the idea is as old as Christmas. The key is an inspired variation. For the purposes of food security, Raman Singh has nominated the eldest woman as head of the family. This legislation places its faith in women, the pivots of family welfare. Women do not fritter away benefits, men do.
If there is good news for the country in the results of Gujarat and Himachal, then there is bad news for politicians: perhaps the two are inter-related. The results confirm a pattern that has been repeating itself insistently since 2009, when UPA got a decisive mandate. There is no confusion. Whoever wins, does so comfortably, whether Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Ashok Gehlot, Prakash Singh Badal or Mulayam Singh Yadav. This eliminates the option of an excuse or an alibi for non-performance when the winner returns to the electorate, as he or she inevitably must. Those who govern, stay. Those who do not, go.
There is no spin in any politician’s bag of tricks that will change this fundamental law of contemporary Indian democracy. The future is safe.

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