Originally Published 2011-05-13 00:00:00 Published on May 13, 2011
With the decisive verdicts in these Assembly elections, and more Assembly elections slated in Uttar Pradesh and a host of others States before 2014 general elections, the voter has put Governments and leaders on notice, when it comes to performance and accountability.
Portends from Polls-2011: Performance and accountability
With results from five-State Assembly polls just in, and the poll process itself just behind it, it can be business as usual for the Congress-led UPA Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Centre. Yet, it’s with the caution that between now and the parliamentary polls, due in 2014, the Government on the one hand and the Congress leadership on the other will have to do better if they can hope to retain power for a third term in a row, a rarity in these days of coalition politics at the national-level. The message is also for the NDA and the BJP, rival at the national-level, to prepare to face the parliamentary polls in a more serious fashion, in the footprints of remarkable electoral performance by the Nitish Kumar leadership in Bihar in last year’s Assembly polls. With Assembly elections in all-important Uttar Pradesh, with uninspiring national parties and disenchanted regional outfits, competing for honours, to be followed by Assembly polls in a host of States before 2014 dawns upon, the voter has put Governments and leaders on notice, when it comes to performance and accountability.

Nowhere else is the combination of the two factors being felt so clearly than in southern Tamil Nadu, where the performance of the five-year DMK Government was not exactly accompanied by the exacting standards that the State’s voters have fixed for their political leadership in terms of accountability for wrongdoing or their perceptions in the matter. This has been the case ever since the post-MGR polls of 1987, as anti-incumbency has cost the rulers dearly at the turn of every five years in office. This time, it has also upset traditional electoral calculations, which had not included greater urbanisation and larger urban middle class, which has been a contribution of successive Dravidian party Governments and their competitive socio-economic policies from the distant past. If the re-distribution of voters following the de-limitation of Assembly segments had seemingly helped the DMK-Congress combine in the Lok Sabha polls of 2009, it has been rendered ineffective in the more relevant Assembly elections now. Yet, the increasingly higher turn-out at almost every turn, coupled with the voter’s decisive say to put his rulers on eternal notice, alternatively, only goes on to show that their frustrations is with the system as it has evolved, and not with the system, per se. It is saying a lot in a State like Tamil Nadu, which was witness to all forms of fundamentalist ideology and militancy until not very long ago. This, despite the ‘cash-for-vote’ charge being levelled against the State’s voters for some time now, and highlighted nationally this time by the stern corrective measures of the Election Commission.

Outgoing octogenarian Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi is also learning a hard lesson all over again, as nepotistic ‘internal politics’ extended beyond the confines of his DMK this time, to impact on public life, where perceptions of corruption, nepotism and non-performance involving his family members and those of his senior ministerial colleagues’ came to reflect on his efficiency and impartiality as none has done in recent years. The comparison could be to the defeat of then ruling AIADMK and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in 1996, where the domineering presence of the family members of her live-in confidante Sasikala Natarajan brought a bad name to the State, and came to reflect on the voter sentiment as none else. While Jayalalithaa is seen as ‘tougher’ of the State’s Chief Ministers for all time to come, and particularly so in matters of enforcement – be it on the law and order front, or soft agendas like rain water-harvesting in individual homes and institutions --that image alone too has not been able to win elections for the party. It’s a combination of factors and that is the chemistry that political parties in the State has not been able to work out, and understand the dynamics of voter-mood – the how, why and when of it. The ‘Sri Lanka factor’, for instance, while not appealing to the Tamil Nadu voter, be it at the height of the 'Eelam War IV' in May 2009 or now in 2011, is an issue, for instance, where Jayalalithaa's contradictory approach could do more harm than good.

Perceptions of the kind are true also of other States that went to the polls this time. In Kerala, neighbouring Tamil Nadu, another octogenarian, yet active Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, could pull back his Left Democratic Front, led by the CPI-M, from the brink of sure-defeat to a close fight in the weeks preceding the polls, in the absence of any clear competition from the rival Congress-UDF for Chief Minister, and clear-cut issues that the latter could project. The two sides were equally matched in matters of internal-fighting, with the result the UDF sailed through with lesser difficulty than had been predicted in the past but with greater difficulty than during the immediate run-up to the polls. It was no different in West Bengal, where the incumbent Left Front, led by the CPI-M, registered a predictable defeat owing to problems in performance and accountability, though not necessarily of the Tamil Nadu kind, that was festering for too long. It's for the same reason that the Congress has retained power in Assam, where the voter did not have much cause to upset Chief Minister Tarun Gagoi. The absence of a strong opponent in the field, as compared to Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, provided another cause.

The incoming Governments in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in particular can expect the Damocles' Sword of performance-accountability issues hanging over their heads almost from day one. It will be no different in Kerala, where the incoming Congress-UDF with a relatively low margin, will have its tough job cut out. The complexities are daunting on both fronts, in all three States and also in Assam, where incumbency factors could still rear its head before the parliamentary polls. Having charged the DMK predecessor with profligacy on non-productive 'freebies' as she did in the run-up to the 2001 polls, which again she won with as big a margin as now, Jayalalithaa will have to do a tight-rope walking if she were not to lose the popularity, as she did in the Lok Sabha polls of 2004 - and from which defeat she did not recover until after the Assembly elections two years hence. Against this, Mamata Banerjee will be called upon to do more to the poor and in ways she had encouraged them to demand in the face of the Nandigram and Singur agitations, and yet keep development on the top of her performance agenda - along with accountability at the grassroots-level, particularly in matters of law and order. In Kerala, it will be a tight-rope walking for the incoming Congress-UDF Government, as they will have little to choose and little to drop from the outgoing LDF agenda - barring of course infighting, which has become common and common knowledge in both camps.

The results of the two by-elections from Andhra Pradesh have a message of its own. The YSR Congress of Jagmohan Reddy, son of the late Congress Chief Minister Jagmohan Reddy, has won both, as expected, though. Jagmohan has retained his KudappaLokSabha seat while his mother Vijayalakshmi her Pulivendala Assembly constituency. Both had quit their after walking out of the Congress parent last year, to found a new party under YSR's name. The injection of eight other candidates bearing Jagmohan's name and four in Pulivendala - all at the instance of the ruling Congress in the State - did not deter the voters. If anything, it has only exposed the ruling party's defensive approach under Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, when the Governments in the State and the Centre are faced with the demand for a separate Telangana. The 'Telangana agitation' having whipped up sentiments across the united Andhra and the Justice Sri Krishna Commission too not coming up with any imaginative proposals for tackling the issue, the coming weeks and months could  be trouble for the two Governments, both led by the Congress Party.

Elsewhere in the country, the farmers' agitation in Greater NOIDA and the attendant political demonstrations are seen as a preparation for the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, the single most important State in parliamentary terms. The weakening of the DMK ally in Tamil Nadu may have helped the Congress to discipline the party, and dictate terms to it, at the Centre. Yet, if the DMK is unable to revive itself between now and the Lok Sabha polls due in 2014, and is also not able to shed its corrupt image by then, the Congress could find itself having to compromise Rahul Gandhi's go-it-alone policy for UP, too. Suffice is to point out that the Congress claims of having revived the students and youth wings in Tamil Nadu over the past couple of years has not been reflected in the current poll performance, either of the party or of its allies. If anything, non-transferability of votes between the Congress and the DMK on the one hand (as in 1980) and a similar non-transferability involving the Dalit-strong VCK across northern Tamil Nadu may prove to be one of the causes for the dismal DMK combine's performance this time.

All this could imply that the Congress' dependence on the ruling BSP and the Opposition SP in Uttar Pradesh for continued and combined parliamentary support for the Manmohan Singh Government could affect its electoral posturing in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress and the BJP rival at the national-level have not been able to revive the voter imagination from the distant past, and the inability of the two regional parties to sustain their own positions too may mean that the flux in national politics might return. If the DMK continues to be in the political/legal doldrums in the aftermath of the on-going corruption cases against Karunanidhi's family members in the 2-G scam case and whatever more the incoming Jayalalithaa Government in the State may choose to slap in true 'Dravidian tradition', the AIADMK can drive a hard bargain in parliamentary polls of 2014, starting with the choice of a national ally. The relative performance of DMDK of star-politician Vijaykanth in the company of the AIADMK now, when compared to the DMK and the Congress, could have a dynamics of its own. While the emergence of the AIADMK with absolute majority may have shut all talk of coalition government, the DMDK's current status can rephrase the party's course, at least in the medium term. In West Bengal even more, the dominant Trinamool Congress could be even more assertive than already in matters of coalition politics at the Centre. The latter, like the Congress State Government in AP, could be faced with the 'Gorkhaland agitation' all over again, even as incoming Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee could hope to address issues of governance that had dogged Left Front predecessor Buddadeb Bhattacharjea almost from the day he succeeded Jyoti Basu. 

Economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has his job cut out. The call for accountability elsewhere in the country actually emanated at the national Captial, and will return to haunt his leadership, and not just in the context of 2G scam, CWG scandal and the like. The voter is holding Governments and leaders as accountable on positive performance, too.  Singh's success in the first term - which in turn contributed to the UPA victory in 2009, despite failing the 'aam aadmi' -- owed to his independence of action without political interference impinging on the Government's performance and image. That does not seem to have followed him into his second innings. Independent of managing a defeated but frustrated ally in the DMK, the Centre will be called upon to address the agendas and aspirations of two diverse Chief Ministers in Mamata Banerjee, an ally, and Jayalalithaa, who can still have the option to decide on her future political/electoral course. Whether the Government and the party could retrieve the lost ground now is also a question that they should be asking themselves - what with the judiciary having gone the whole hog in matters pertaining to the 2G scam and other corruption cases, and is expected to complete the processes that it has launched. Yet, the Congress can take heart from the fact that the BJP opposition at the national-level too is in no better shape, the latter having convinced itself that issues of accountability could see the NDA through in parliamentary polls, whenever held. The BJP should note that it was in the absence of a strong political Opposition that other institutions of democracy, like the judiciary and the Election Commission, stepped in to fill the void in a time-tested scheme in the country that is on auto-start all the time. The need for, and ability of the Election Commission, to discipline the political leadership, first in Bihar, and now in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while welcome whole-heartedly, has also meant that other traditional tools of democracy has been found wanting. It begins with polity, which does not find mention in the traditional phraseology of 'three pillars of government' - which when another pillar is added, has included 'free media', which can now sit back and take credit, too. Yet, the fact also remains that in a situation like the one that has prevailed in Tamil Nadu for some time now, the 'campaign controls' enforce by the Election Commission effectively meant that identifiable political leaderships and their symbols, rather than individual candidates, alone could be recognised by the voter - whether in urban centres or rural constituencies. It could be worse still in parliamentary polls, In turn, this can discourage younger generation aspirations, individuals and those wanting to serve the people through the electoral route in times of greater incentives in professional fields, could lead to a system of 'electoral monopoly' on the one hand and/or emergence of sub-regional outfits, on the other. That's of course not good for a multi-layered democracy with multi-level, multi-interest constituency, still craving for manna from the State.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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