Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2012-03-14 00:00:00 Published on Mar 14, 2012
The most important lesson from the recent Assembly elections is that never ignore the basics: leadership, organisation and message. There is no substitute to robust party organisation and strong regional faces, especially at a time that is relatively free from any major polarising events.
Interpreting Assembly elections verdict
With the dust setting after five State Assembly elections, it is time to do some serious stock taking of emerging trends, distinct and observable patterns and key lessons for political parties and candidates. Before one heads to interpret the results, few cautionary observations on the recent elections would help to put the analysis in a proper perspective. First, the elections were held in normal circumstances. There were no major political, religious or communal upheavals (like, Babri Masjid demolition, Bombay or Gujarat riots) that can significantly influence voting. Instead, parties fought hard in true democratic spirit under the ever watchful eyes of the Election Commission. Second, before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this is probably the major political event. Therefore, this is truly the semi-final to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and doubtlessly the outcome of this elections will have significant bearing on national politics. Third, the Assembly election, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, was viewed as a leadership trial run for Rahul Gandhi, the prime minister in waiting, and equally for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its emerging band of leadership (post-Vajpayee and Advani) to regain the lost political space in the heartland that had catapulted the ’nowhere party’ to power in the post-Mandal era.

Beyond these cautionary notes, how does one interpret the verdict? What sense one gets from the election results and from key voting trends? Who are the losers (not necessarily in terms of number of seats) and who are the bad losers? What it takes to be a winner at state level? Are there any take away from the Assembly verdict? At the risks of over-simplification, it is possible to draw up certain verifiable trends and patterns in the just concluded elections.

Further ’Federalisation of Polity’

The most discerning trend emerging out of the Assembly results is that the centre of gravity in Indian polity is clearly shifting from the Centre to the States or to be precise, to regional parties. The election results unmistakably points to greater ’regionalisation of Indian polity’ or greater federalisation of polity’ and this is clearly vindicated from the performances of two national parties in the key States of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The pace of regionalisation, which began after the decline of ’one-party dominance’ in the late 1990s and 2000s, has now run its full circle. To paraphrase the words of a well known political commentator "federal impulses in India have developed independent root, outside the structure of the two main national parties". And there is little disagreement that such a trend would have serious implications for national polity, particularly current federal power sharing arrangements and political stability at the Centre.

Limits of identity politics

Second and the most important trend emerging out of these elections is that there is a slow but definite shift in the social base of Indian polity. Development and aspiration linked issues have made significant inroad into traditional caste and religion vote banks. Such trends were observed in nearly all the States, and more so in UP, Punjab and Goa. As post-poll studies reveal, parties that made the cut were the ones that pulled a significant percentage of neutral and loyal voters of opposition parties. For instance, the Samajwadi Party (SP), which swept the elections in UP, was able to pull a critical mass of voters beyond its famous MY (Muslims-Yadav) constituency. A CSDS analysis revealed that "for SP what worked in its favour was that it pulled traditional Rajput and Brahmin votes from the BJP, made major dent even amongst the Jatavs and non-Jatav dalits voters (core Mayawati vote base) apart from consolidating its core MY constituency". It would be ideal to recall that Mayawati in 2007 (UP) and Nitish Kumar in 2010 (Bihar) won with thumping majority largely because they could break away the loyal voter base of principal opposition parties in their respective States.

Similar trends can be found in Punjab as well. A traditionally Jat dominated party like the Shiromani Akali Dal could take away a significant percentage of dalit votes from the Congress by shedding some of its ’Panthic’ image. In Goa, the BJP was able to bridge Hindu-Catholic polarisation by drafting several Christian candidates. In short, while caste and other parochial considerations have not completely disappeared, they are increasingly being replaced by other factors, mostly development and new aspiration issues. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, study after study now reveal that a sizeable number of voters, especially youth, (this election saw an unprecedented voter participation from 46% to 60 in UP and majority of this new voters were youth) rooted for the SP because the party and its leadership (young Akhilesh Yadav) was able to cut a conversation with average voters on issues (new aspirations) that mattered them the most. In contrast, both the national parties were found being fixated with identity politics of bygone eras (minority quota, soft Hindutva appeal).

Arrival of ’smart voters’

If anything, the results clearly mark the coming of smart voter. A voter with all his/her caste, class, religious affiliations and prejudices intact, is increasingly making rational choices or as some call "strategic voting" on wide variety of considerations. While such a trend was found in 2004 (post-Gujarat riots) and 2009 Lok Sabha elections (Congress making stunning performances in UP by gaining 21 seats), the 2012 Assembly elections have further consolidated such a trend. This is best observed in the cases of Raebareli, Amethi and Sultanpuri, proven pocket-boroughs of the Congress Party. While a massive crowd swelled to Rahul Gandhi’s rallies, most of them voted for the party they thought would most likely form the next government. Even in Goa and Punjab, both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi drew huge crowds, but when it came to votes, there was little positive correlation. In short, the issues of development and aspirations, with far reaching implications for parties and candidates, have shown that Indian voter is no herd!

Lokpal shadow and election results

Given the kind of public attention that Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement drew in most part of 2011, it would be pertinent to ask if this prominent urban movement played a role in the outcome of Assembly elections. A dominant section of intelligentsia and political class believe that the corruption issue, which had acquired massive public space, was a non-issue in Assembly elections and had no role in the electoral outcome. This view needs to be challenged. While it may not be the most dominant factor as vindicated from the victory of SP (known for running mafia raj and supporting corrupt and criminal elements) and Akalis (in Punjab, viewed very corrupt in the public perception), corruption was a key factor in Uttarakhand and Goa. As has been reported extensively, the Congress government in Goa lost to BJP’s Monohar Parrikar, known as ’Mr. Clean’ largely because the incumbent government was caught deep in a series of mining and allotment scams. As for Uttarakhand, the Nishank led BJP government that was viewed ’extremely corrupt’ and was written off to lose elections, was able to stop the Congress from achieving simple majority through brand Khanduri. BC Khanduri, who was parachuted by the BJP in the last minute to head the government, could considerably regain BJP’s lost ground through his Jan Lokpal Act and host of other anti-corruption measures.

Key Lessons

Are there any lessons especially for the two national parties? Like all elections, the most important lesson from the Assembly elections is that never ignore the basics: leadership, organisation and message. No matter how much one spends in making the campaign extra greasy (by pampering voters and core members) and how one frames and colours the campaign (even hiring the best of strategists and ad-managers with Ivy League degrees), there is no substitute to robust party organisation and strong regional faces in winning elections, especially at a time that is relatively free from any major polarising events. Explaining in crude term, for both national parties to regain their lost ground in UP, they not only have to build and strengthen party organisations and own and anchor regional or local issues, they have to have their own versions of YSR (YS Rajasekhar Reddy, late Congress Chief Minister from Andhra Pradesh). Rajasekhar Reddy re-conquered the once written-off Andhra Pradesh from the iron grip of Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu in 2004 through a year-long padayatra that took him to every corner of the State, braving peak summer and treacherous roads and risking life. This ultimately gave him the most genuine opportunity to re-connect with electorates and upturn the pessimism against the Congress. Rest is history. It is now folklore how YSR wrote Chandrababu Naidu’s political obituary and punctured a budding Telangana agitation. In short, to survive the tectonic power shift and regionalisation juggernaut, the national parties have to find their YSRs apart from reframing issues to reach out to a growing constituency that increasingly judge parties on their performance, and not based on their national quotient or issues of bygone decades (quota and identity). Needles to say, both the national parties have to reinvent themselves and regain their lost vote base apart from making strong inroad into the "emerging or new voters’ that increasingly cast their ballots on range of issues other than identity.

(Niranjan Sahoo is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Fellow. He specialises on governance and public policy)

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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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