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Sadak aur sarkar

Kashmir confirms the trend: a mature Indian voter cares about governance

Written by Shekhargupta |
September 7, 2011 5:22:59 pm

The recent series of state elections was famously described as a mini-general election by the entire club of tele-psephologists. But none dared to hold an opinion or an exit poll. Again, opinion polls are expensive, so perhaps the dwindling revenues of media organisations (TV and print) in this disastrous quarter had something to do with it. But one reason no media organisation was willing to put any money in opinion polls this time was their stunningly consistent record lately of getting it wrong. In the past five years, if anybody has called an election result right, it’s been a mere exception, and that too with many qualifications. Most others have gone wrong.

So what exactly has changed? Has the voter suddenly decided not to share his mind with the pollster? Has something gone wrong with the polling technology? Or, has something changed with our politics so fundamentally that old formulae no longer work, formulae of caste combinations, personal loyalties and enmities, grievances and identity around which the psephologists constructed their swing zones? Is it all to do with just the impact of delimitation of constituencies? Or could it be that our psephologists and other political pundits have missed out on a much more significant delimitation — one in the voter’s mind that is rendering old rules, stereotypes and formulae irrelevant and writing a new script? What is the voter trying to say when she defies anti-incumbency in three states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi) but not in one (Rajasthan), and then junks all conventional logic in Kashmir to give you this fascinating result?

Let’s take Kashmir first, not only because it is the latest in a series of fascinating election campaigns and results this year. All the “experts” you heard before the elections said the following:

1. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP was going to sweep the Valley for many reasons. Firstly, it had roused popular sentiment on the Amarnath issue to such an extent that so many well-meaning intellectuals were moved into suggesting that we give away Kashmir, or at least let the Kashmiris go where they want. Secondly, that with its call for self-rule, it was seen as the party closest to the separatists and since the popular mood, as evidenced in the streets in August, was in their favour, the PDP would have to be a clear winner. Third, and this was the most interesting of all, the fact that militants allowed the election to go on showed that they had decided (or conspired with the voters) to ensure that the political force closest to them wins. You heard several of the tele-pundits say this with so much clarity even on the morning that counting began that you wondered if they were the ones carrying that message from the separatists to the voters.

2. The BJP was going to sweep Jammu and other “Hindu-dominated” areas because of the brilliant manner in which they had exploited the same Amarnath issue. Particularly so since its only rival is the Congress, which the Muslims hated because of its “Indian nationalist” credentials, and Hindus because its chief minister withdrew the Amarnath land allotment. This election, therefore, was to mark the arrival of the BJP, as also of total communal polarisation in the state.

3. The party that was going to “pay” for its sins and stupidity was the National Conference. A whole legion of “experts” said Omar Abdullah had thrown away any chance his party may have had by making that “I am a Muslim and I am an Indian and I see no distinction between the two” speech in the Lok Sabha debate on the nuclear deal. With such “immaturity” he did not have a hope in the Valley.

The voter, meanwhile, has turned this entire logic, drawn from conventional political analysis, on its head. The Valley had high voting, but either the separatists did not send out a message to bring in the PDP, or the voters did not listen to them. Omar’s “I am an Indian” speech does not seem to have done him any harm. And, finally, the communal polarisation that Amarnath had “promised” us did not happen, either in the Valley or in Jammu. The Congress very nearly maintained its earlier numbers, and while the BJP gained, it was mostly at the cost of “others” whose numbers nearly halved (from 22 to 10), confirming yet another evolving, and positive, national trend.

It would be audacious to suggest that an election result in Kashmir should confirm some new trends in national politics. But occasionally you can stick your neck out. To begin with, people are no longer willing to vote merely on past prejudices, fears, grievances and anger. Second, the days of blind, bloc voting are over. Third, and most important, voting behaviour is now driven by a new yearning for better governance. What we saw begin as a quest for bijli, sadak and paani (power, roads, water) and then added padhai (education) and naukri (jobs) to that list, is now becoming a better defined need for better governments overall. This is the most important change because, interestingly, it emanates from two decades of strong anti-incumbency and is now a new wave that does not mind re-electing the incumbent if it looks like he ran a half-decent government.

No longer can the challenger therefore presume he will win just because of anti-incumbency. This is what the Congress realised in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and the BJP in Delhi. This change is rooted in anti-incumbency because, most of all, it was that phenomenon that convinced the politician that if he had to have any chance of getting re-elected he had to perform extraordinarily well. In the past, if he could presume another term on the basis of caste, identity, old grievances and insecurities, he felt no such pressure.

The best example of that politics is Lalu’s 18 lost years in Bihar. Today the fear of certain defeat has made even the most cynical caste-identity-communal leaders perform. That is why our politics is going through such a radical and positive transformation.

This is what the psephologists and pundits have missed. Their models, thinking, mantras are still based on old AJGAR, MAJGAR, KHAM, Hindu/Muslim, empowerment/identity formulae. They have completely overlooked the new sense of confidence the voter now feels, having tasted the power to change governments over nearly two decades. This confidence leads to wiser voting by a better educated and more confident voter who, for the first time in our democratic history, is now willing to seek a stake in the future rather than be settling scores for the past. The politics of grievance, some of us had dared to suggest almost five years back, is now making way for the politics of aspiration. The entire series of election results, topped by Kashmir, now confirm that. Political leaders, as also the pundits and psephologists who fail to acknowledge that change, will soon be history, like our old politics of negativism.

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