Just a routine pollhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/just-a-routine-poll/

Just a routine poll

These assembly elections are marked by a lack of new ideas from the challengers.

By K K Kailash

These assembly elections are marked by a lack of new ideas from the challengers.

William Riker,one of the most original political scientists of our times,on­ce observed that the art of politi­cs is to find some alternative that beats the current winner. It follows that politicians will continually attempt to find ways to get the prefe­r­red outco­mes and results. Like shr­e­wd entrepreneurs,they never miss an opport­unity to advance their position. Tho­se in power will work tow­ards plugging gaps and reducing the spa­ce for challengers. Those in the opposition will not only pick at wea­k­nesses but also bring in new issues or simply reframe old ones to move the winner out of the current comfort zone. This is what they are supposed to do,but are they doing it?

Paradoxically,the inauguration of a competitive multiparty system and the subsequent increase in choices on the electoral menu has not been extended to the policy menu. Suhas Palshikar recently noted in this column (“Polls apart”,IE,November 4) that one of the distinguishing features of the post-Congress party system,which just about appears to be consolidating itself,is the absence of real policy competitiveness. While there has been a shift from identity to governance and performance issues,there seems to be no space for a “genuine contest of ideas,policies and visions”.


This vacuum is visible in the current election mobilisation and campaign. Since 1998,the five states of Mizoram,Chhattisgarh,Madhya Pradesh,Rajasthan and Delhi have had their own,almost personal,electoral calendar. The merit of set patterns and regularities notwithstanding,the problem is that politics itself appears to have been routinised. Routinisation here means increasing predictability in the scope,content and process of politics. When politics becomes normal,it ceases to excite,and studies have already shown that citizen participation,which had expanded in the 1990s,has gradually tapered and actually stagnated.

Barring Delhi today,the teams and their game plan have hardly changed in the states between the elections held a decade ago and the current elections. The issues and vocabulary of governance and service delivery,which were novel at one point of time,have become stale and uninspiring. Over the last decade,no one has presented or implemented any radical agenda that changed the way politics is thought of or carried on.

But this has not always been the case. There are numerous examples of political parties who made critical manoeuvres to change both the contours and the direction of politics. These moves not only rattled the competitors but transformed the discourse of politics itself. In Punjab,the resolutions adopted by the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1978,in light of the earlier Anandpur Sahib Resolution,brought the issue of real federalism and the need to redefine Centre-state relations to the table. Down south,the Telugu Desam broke new ground in Andhra Pradesh in 1982,when it highlighted Telugu self-respect and pride. From the land reforms legislation in 1957 to the “people’s plan campaign” for decentralisation in 1996,the CPI(M) in Kerala has been systematically creating a structure of choices,which gives it immense advantage and,at the same time,rejuvenates the political discourse.

While the Janata family added the politics of reservations to the lexicon of Indian politics,the BJP awakened religion and mixed it with nationalism to concoct a potion whose effects are still in the process of unravelling. The Congress too has often turned the tables to bring a discursive turn as well as to splinter the opposition. The “Garibi Hatao” campaign of 1971 and the “aam aadmi” focus of 2004 restructured both the political conversation and mobilisation patterns.

These significant manoeuvres have almost always come from the losers. The Congress’s aam aadmi invention came after three straight election defeats in 1996,1998 and 1999,and nearly eight years (including the two years it supported the United Front governments from outside) away from power. It is the loser who is more desperate to win and is therefore forced to be proactive and reinvent. At the same time,the incentive to inject new dimensions and issues often lies not with the main government or opposition parties but with new challengers who need the spotlight.

Of the five states going to polls now,it is Delhi that is witnessing a departure from the normal. The entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has increased both electoral and policy choices for voters in the capital. The AAP’s predominantly people-centric thrust,organisational structure,novel strategy to tailor constituency-specific manifestos,candidate selection procedures and so on are not just attempts to be heard. They also stem from the party’s need to distinguish itself from the existing set of competitors. By mobilising people around non-salient issues like electricity and women’s safety,it is clearly trying to chart a new path,attract new voters and restructure the existing political competition. At the moment,the two dominant parties in Delhi,the BJP and Congress,are playing the classic ignore game,not wanting to increase the salience of the issues raised by the challenger.

Routinisation appears to be more acute in the states in which the two polity-wide parties are the primary competitors. With the increasing territorial heterogeneity of politics,polity-wide parties are caught between the national and regional. The multilevel hierarchical organisation of these parties leaves little space for the units to be different. Re-ignition,therefore,must come from the top,or the units need to be allowed greater autonomy to craft and articulate differentiated packages. It must be mentioned that units in power enjoy greater leverage than the units in opposition. However,if we are to move away from the normal,it is the losers who have to take charge and for this,the units must have more space for themselves or give way to new challengers. There is hope on the horizon; the entry of the AAP has shown that politics can be rebooted,reinvented and invigorated.

K K Kailash

The writer is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.