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Sweat the small stuff

As the Lok Sabha polls approach, whether next month or next spring, talk inevitably begins: who will win and what issues are going...

Adam W. Ziegfeld |
July 11, 2008 1:21:00 am

As the Lok Sabha polls approach, whether next month or next spring, talk inevitably begins: who will win and what issues are going to affect the outcome? Several issues have figured prominently in this speculation: the nuclear deal, inflation, and recent assembly elections. Conventional wisdom says that the news is bad for Congress on all counts. But let’s take them one by one.

First, there is the nuclear deal — an issue of tremendous importance, whether from the perspective of detractors who fret about India’s foreign policy future or supporters concerned with addressing the country’s energy needs. The import of the nuclear deal is hardly in doubt, but its impact on election outcomes most certainly is. The potential costs and benefits of the nuclear deal for the aam aadmi are diffuse and indirect. By contrast, the daily struggles of poor and working-class Indians to gain access to clean water, sanitation, quality housing, basic education, and steady employment are not. For many Indians, their vote is one of the few resources they have with which to improve their access to basic necessities. It allows them to influence, however marginally, who their future MLA or MP will be and whether he or she is going to be someone who is sympathetic to the voter’s demands — ensuring a teacher’s attendance at the local school, directing development funds to the voter’s village, or helping the voter secure a widow’s pension or BPL card from a lethargic bureaucracy. When a vote can be put to this practical use, it seems improbable to think that much of the electorate will cast its vote on the basis of the nuclear deal, regardless of its final outcome or whether the deal precipitates early elections.

Second, there is inflation, which undoubtedly has a profound influence on the daily lives of voters. And while social science research has shown that voters often punish incumbent governments for deteriorating economic conditions, the issue of blame is complicated by India’s federal system and frequent coalition governments. Which incumbents will suffer if voters choose to take out their economic frustrations on the parties in power? Will Congress’ coalition partners incur the voters’ wrath in the same measure as Congress itself, particularly in states in which Congress is a marginal player? Will it even be the parties that constitute the national government that will bear the brunt of voter’s economic concerns? India has a federal system in which the state governments play a more direct role than the national government in the lives of most citizens. Since the popularity of state governments is often thought to influence Lok Sabha results, might not voters blame state governments for failing to control the price rise and use the Lok Sabha polls to vent their frustrations? Doing so may not seem rational to a highly-informed citizen, but public opinion research on even the most highly-educated electorates shows that voters very often fail to rationally assign blame. In Congress-ruled states like Andhra Pradesh and Assam, the price rise should worry Congress. But, in BJP-ruled states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it is possible that Congress could benefit from inflation. Ultimately, until social scientists arrive at a better understanding of how the Indian voter responds to economic hard times, assuming that inflation will necessarily harm Congress’ electoral fortunes is, at best, idle speculation.

Third, Congress has lost a string of state-level elections, most notably in UP and Karnataka, but also in Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab. Surely, these losses bode poorly for Congress’ prospects across India as a whole and signal a turning point for the BJP. But no, they do not. As elections over the last decade have amply illustrated, electoral dynamics vary tremendously from state to state. Factors specific to each state — rebel candidates, caste equations, state government performance — remain crucial determinants of electoral outcomes. Therefore, losses in one state say almost nothing about a party’s chances for success in another. For example, the BJP’s success among urban Hindus in Punjab in the 2007 polls did not influence the party’s ability to court the Lingayat vote bank in Karnataka or successfully project Narendra Modi as a catch-all political leader in Gujarat and sheds no light on how the festering Meena-Gurjar rivalry will play out for the BJP in the coming polls in Rajasthan. Then what insight can recent assembly elections provide into the upcoming elections? They suggest that Congress should not count on strong performances in

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Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab, where the same competitive dynamics in the state elections — BJP-Akali combine versus Congress in Punjab and BJP versus Congress in the other three — are likely to prevail in the Lok Sabha elections. But these four states account for only 48 Lok Sabha seats. Congress could more than compensate for losses there through alliance-making in other states, especially in UP (80 seats) and Karnataka (28 seats). Should Congress engineer electoral alliances with the Samajwadi Party and the JD(S), then all bets are off in UP and Karnataka. In a two-way race in Karnataka between a Congress-JD(S) combine and the BJP, the BJP may be hard-pressed to repeat its 2008 victory and retain the Lok Sabha seats it won in 2004. Similarly, a Samajwadi-Congress alliance may be enough to make up for the BSP’s recent gains. In short, recent election victories for the BJP and BSP shed little light on the one factor that will, without a doubt, be critical in determining the final outcome of the elections: alliance-making.

None of this should suggest undue optimism in the Congress camp. They may well lose in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls but the nuclear deal will certainly not be to blame, nor will the BJP’s ‘momentum’ coming out of recent assembly elections. Instead, the key to victory lies, as it did in 2004, in smart alliance-making at the state-level.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in political science at MIT

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