Pollsters were banished by the EC’s diktat but there were still the theorists. The results of Assembly elections 2008 pose a serious setback to this breed as well — underlining the fact that the voter is always steps ahead of the pundit.
Thesis: The wave of terror strikes and the Mumbai attack would become the meta-narrative of these elections. The BJP tried to stoke and mobilize anxieties around this issue in its campaigns. L K Advani and Narendra Modi addressed several rallies, especially in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, which had terror as their main theme. The spurt in turnout in Delhi on November 29, three days after the Mumbai attack — Rajasthan went to polls five days later — and especially in the capital’s urban constituencies, was cited as evidence of the anxiety that had gripped the voter.
Reality check: Terror — or how safe we are — is certainly an issue and given the attacks in Delhi, Jaipur and then Mumbai, the Congress-led UPA was on the defensive. But the BJP’s formulation of the issue failed to strike a credible chord.
Its campaign that the UPA was “soft on terror” didn’t translate into “we know how to keep you safe.” Its “blood-stain” ad asking for votes even as the siege was on in Mumbai put off many voters.
Thesis: The economic crisis and inflation would be an overarching issue.
Reality check: Rise in prices of essential commodities did not stop incumbents in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi from coming back to power, when the electorate thought their governments had performed.
By all accounts, the defeat of incumbents in Rajasthan and Mizoram cannot be attributed to the economic crisis and was due to factors that lay closer home.
In Rajasthan, for instance, it is safe to say that Vasundhara Raje was more hobbled by serious infighting in her own party than by consequences of the meltdown.
Sure, EMI pain and inflation are issues for voters but they weren’t convinced that a change in government would fix these problems.
Thesis: BSP’s Mayawati and her “rainbow” coalition would set the stage for a third force.
Reality check: The BSP gained but is far short of Mayawati’s ambition. It polled over 10% of the vote in 51 seats in MP, 38 each in Delhi and Rajasthan and at least 11 in Chhattisgarh. Such incremental progress may being some cheer to Mayawati but she is far from being a new pole in national politics.
The BSP did not cost the Congress its chance to form governments in the still essentially bi-polar contests in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Nor does the Congress miss the BSP’s numbers in forming governments in Delhi, where it has a got majority of its own, or in Rajasthan where it can easily make up the short distance to the magic figure by choosing from a large array of Independents.
Thesis: Party that has a CM, has the vote
Reality check: Mixed. In Rajasthan, the BJP went to polls with a Chief Minister and lost. The Congress won in the state and it still hasn’t declared a chief minister. But then Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh were both effective CMs as was Sheila Dikshit in Delhi. And all three staved off anti-incumbency.
What’s the message of the verdicts?
To all parties: Anti-incumbency is not an iron law of nature. Incumbency can be a good thing and people will turn out in large numbers to vote for a party in government again if it is seen to have delivered.
To BJP: Party organisation and party leadership have to be in sync. In MP, the party changed almost a third of its MLAs in a repeat of Gujarat while in Delhi it did not.
In Chouhan and Raman Singh, it had two strong faces but in Delhi, it fielded V K Malhotra who was beyond his use-by date. In Rajasthan, it had a dynamic face in Vasundhara but the party tied her hands down.
Fear may not sell in the old ways with the voter anymore. The low-key Chouhan focused on bijli-sadak-paani issues even when national leaders of his own party were trying to change the subject to the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Singh.
Modi’s rallies accusing the UPA of demoralising the Army — in the Malegaon probe — and his constant terror refrain invoked the law of diminishing returns.
To Congress: Imposing leaders from the “high command” doesn’t help. If a Central scheme — like NREGA — works well, voters tend to reward the state government which executes it.
Congress organisation in MP was in a shambles so a galaxy of leaders from Delhi could make little difference.
In Rajasthan, it won but even a Vasundhara, wracked by inner-party war, could get as many as 78 seats.
The Congress has broken its losing streak in state elections. But it would be dangerous to see the results of these Assembly elections as anything more than the results of these Assembly elections.
The BJP had won handsome victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2003. But it could not take these gains to other states in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 a few months later — this is where the choice and winnability of allies matter.
For the Congress, it would also be wrong to read into these results a reprieve on either internal security or inflation and growth.
The 3-2 tally only earns the UPA some breathing space and room for manoeuvre before the campaign begins for Lok Sabha polls 2009.
(with bureau reports)