By this time next year,campaigns for the parliamentary elections would have commenced,assuming nothing dramatic happens to force early elections. As we move closer to 2014,every small development is decoded as if it were a hieroglyphic statement about the final outcome. One keeps finding meaningful signals that could foreshadow the contours of the story next year.
State elections often provide such indications. Whenever assembly elections take place,there is a temptation to extrapolate the outcomes and imagine what they mean for the shaping of the next Lok Sabha. This game becomes even more popular once parliamentary elections are round the corner. Last month,three states elected their assemblies. In all three cases Meghalaya,Nagaland and Tripura the ruling parties were returned to power. But these being smaller states,their impact in terms of strength in the Lok Sabha is bound to be limited. Together,these three states represent only five seats. In 2009,the UPA had won two of these five seats,the Left Front had won two and the NDA bagged the remaining one (Nagaland). The situation has not changed much since then except that the NCP in Meghalaya has split and P.A. Sangma has formed his own party. So the assembly results in these states have not thrown up new patterns. It is,however,noteworthy that all three states have re-elected the government in power. Does that hold some significance?
Re-election of the sitting government always has a local context. But there is a larger trend as well,one which indicates that anti-incumbency is on its way out. This does not mean that a government will always be re-elected; it only means that the unexplained removal of a government is less likely. Of course,in the last three years,quite a few governments have been unseated those in Kerala,Tamil Nadu,West Bengal,Uttar Pradesh,Himachal Pradesh,Goa. Yet,punishment by the voters is not as random as it appeared to be in the 1990s.
During the 1990s,when party competition had suddenly opened up,new players rose,often at the state level. This allowed voters to experiment with the available options. Following Mandal,parties tended to emphasise identity markers more than anything else. By the late-1990s,though slogans and identity markers continued to adorn manifestos and speeches,the issue of governmental performance assumed salience. As a result,the phenomenon of incumbent governments being voted out of power became somewhat selective,shaped by the state-level political configuration and performance of the incumbents. In some states as in Kerala since earlier times,Himachal and now most probably Goa a bipolar alternation became the norm. Governmental performance definitely mattered in many states,as in UP and Tamil Nadu,and of course,the weaknesses of the opposition parties/coalitions helped incumbents survive in elections,witness Assam,Maharashtra,Andhra Pradesh.
The larger lesson is that the governments performance and clever strategy (in that order) contribute to its survival. However,this formula does not mechanically apply to the survival of the Central government. In the absence of the towering national level leadership that can sway voters,assessment of the Central government is mediated by the concerned partys performance at the state level. The National Election Study has found that in 2004,voters were roughly equally divided on the issue of whether the state government mattered more to them or the Central government. In 2009,for every 10 voters to whom the Central government mattered more,there were 17 for whom the state government mattered more. This means that a voter in a BJP-ruled state is more likely to vote for the Congress (or the UPA),not because he or she finds the latters performance at the Centre satisfactory but because of the dissatisfaction with the BJP governments performance at the state level. That is why states and the performance of state governments are key to shaping voters choice.
This is also why performance alone will not shape the outcome. Consider the states of West Bengal,UP or Orissa. So long as the Trinamool Congress,the Samajwadi Party or the Biju Janata Dal are not aligned with either the UPA or the NDA,good performances by the party in power might not benefit the two larger alliances. But unsatisfactory performances by the ruling parties in these states would open up the competition for the Congress and the BJP there. In 2009,the poor performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party opened the doors to the Congress (the BSP,the Congress and the SP won almost the same number of seats in UP). This is where the issue of coalition-making is bound to enter into calculations. Before and after the 2009 parliamentary elections,the NDA lost allies. Since then,the UPA has lost allies,namely the TMC. The increasing number of parties that are outside both the NDA and the UPA will make the electoral contest much more complicated and fascinating.
Before the parliamentary elections,in the coming nine months,we shall witness five keen contests. These five states account for 99 parliamentary seats. In the current Lok Sabha,the Congress holds 46 of these seats while the BJP had won 49. A mechanical projection based on leads in the assembly segments had suggested that the Congress would get 45 and the BJP 49 seats. Thus,the importance of these state elections can hardly be exaggerated for both the Congress and the BJP.
In three of these states Karnataka,Chhattisgarh,Madhya Pradesh the BJP is in power,while the Congress rules in Delhi and Rajasthan. In Delhi,the Congress faces fatigue born out of long incumbency. This is matched by the inaction and inertia of its main rival,the BJP. In Karnataka,the ruling BJP is in a shambles and challenged by Yeddyurappas newly formed party,while it is not clear whether the Congress in the state is in a position to take advantage of this situation. The BJP had swept Chhattisgarh in the last parliamentary elections while the Congress had fought back after a defeat in the assembly elections in MP. In Rajasthan,the BJP was handicapped by acute internal dissensions,during the assembly as well as the Lok Sabha elections.
Such state level dynamics and configurations will determine the outcomes in these five assembly elections. But one thing is pretty certain: those who win these states will,in all likelihood,enjoy an advantage in these states in the parliamentary elections. In that sense,the curtains on 2014 will be raised when Karnataka goes to the polls.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune,firstname.lastname@example.org
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