Column: Southern comfort

Written by Mahesh Vyas | Updated: Mar 20 2014, 08:17am hrs
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) popularised bijli-sadak-paani as an election issue in 2003 in Madhya Pradesh to devastating effect. The campaign dislodged a wily and efficient Digvijaya Singh from chief ministership. Deploying the lack of infrastructure as an election issue was as ingenious as it was effective. Its success was stunning enough that it merited sustained attention to nurture the rather fragile connect between what the people expect from a government and the way they vote to elect a government. But elections are rarely fought on such critical issues. How would a slogan like bijli-sadak-paani work if it were to be deployed in elections for the coming Lok Sabha Would the success or failure in the creation of infrastructure at the state level by a political party have an impact upon its performance in the Lok Sabha elections

For example, would it matter that, in Gujarat, nearly 1% of the households (0.96% to be precise) do not have any source of lighting in their homes No electricity, no solar power, no kerosene or any other fuel to burn a lamp for just plain light. Other states are not as bad as Gujarat is. Of a total of 35 states and Union territories, only four states are worse than Gujarat in respect of driving darkness out of homes. The number of people living in darkness in Gujarat has increased from 82,653 in 2001 to 1,16,903 in 2011. Even the proportion of households living in darkness has increased from 0.86% to 0.96%. This is twice the proportion for India as a whole, but it is too small a proportion to matter to the larger electorate and therefore the electoral fortunes of political parties.

But how about the 10% of the households that do not have access to electricity. They mostly use kerosene to burn a lamp for light. That is still the dark ages.

Political parties stake a claim for success by demonstrating change. It is change and not the absolute position that matters. The BJP can make a fair claim that it has spread electricity well in Gujarat. The proportion of households that have access to electricity has increased from 80% in 2001 to 90% in 2011. And the BJP government has been in power during the entire period of this change. So, the partys claim for this success should be fair. But, in the Lok Sabha elections due now, it is the relative performance that will matter. What will matter is the performance of Gujarat compared to the performance of other states, particularly those ruled by other political parties.

In terms of the spread of electricity, Gujarat is a median state. It ranked 16th amongst the 35 as per the 2011 Census. Given that the BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1995, this is not a very good mark. But worse still, its relative position has deteriorated over the decade. In 2001, it ranked 12th. All the southern states have beaten Gujarat in the spread of electricity during the 2000s. All these states ranked lower than Gujarat in 2001 and all of them now rank higher than Gujarat. It would be interesting to see how the electorate responds to this relatively poor performance of the BJP in Gujarat compared to the rather messy political arrangements in the south.

While the southern states have shown better progress in delivering electricity, the political parties of the south have not been as well-entrenched as the BJP has been in Gujarat or even in Madhya Pradesh. Or their fortunes are tied to coalition partners such as in Kerala and even in Karnataka. The relation between the spread of electricity and re-election of an incumbent government is only partly apparent, if at all. And the political dividends from the success in spreading electricity in the coming elections are far from clear. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, where the penetration of electricity in households has increased from 67% in 2001 to 92% in 2011, the Congress has been in power since 2004. The party did exceedingly well in the 2009 state elections, but is in shambles with the creation of Telangana. The gains in spreading electricity would not merit even a footnote in the states electoral politics today.

Kerala has seen the biggest gain in spreading electricity in households. In 2001, only 70% of the households had access to electricity. In 2011, 94.4% of the households had access to electricity in the state. The credit for this can go to a coalition government of the Congress, the CPI(M) and the Muslim League. A coalition of the Congress with the communists and a religion-based party as partners has done better than most stable and business-friendly governments! Did the impressive spread of electricity amongst households of Kerala help the United Democratic Front (UDF) come back to power for the third consecutive spell in 2011 It is appealing to say yes to that. But, like in most discussions, Kerala may turn out to be the outlier, or an exception to the rule.

In Tamil Nadu, governments have been voted in and outthe AIADMK, which won in 2001, was voted out in 2006 in favour of the DMK, only to be brought in again in 2011. But electricity spread out to more households than in the strongly stable Gujarat. In Karnataka, neither the Congress nor the BJP has been in power long enough to claim the honour of having spread electricity. The Congress ruled the state till 2004 and then it did so in a coalition with the Janata Dal. The BJP did a similar coalition from 2008.

And what happened to Madhya Pradesh after all the brouhaha over bijli etc in 2003 The 2011 Census data should embarrass the BJP and the electorate for having chosen the BJP repeatedly at least for one reason that they threw out the Congress for. Electricity penetration in Madhya Pradesh in 2011 was a pathetic 67.1%. This was lower than the 70% penetration of electricity in 2001. The rest of the statistics is equally damaging. As many as 29.5% of the households used kerosene for light in 2001. Now, 32.1% use kerosene. And, finally, while 0.18% of the households were in complete darkness then, 0.23% of the households are in complete darkness now.

So, the link between the spread of electricity and politics, Kerala notwithstanding, is not very apparent. More importantly, and more interestingly, evidence suggests that the spread of electricity is possibly independent of the stability of a political party in a state and political parties can win repeatedly although they may fail completely on delivering the basic infrastructure they promise.

The poor performance of the BJP in delivering electricity to homesa very clear mandate of a state governmentshould have dented the credentials of the party staking a claim to effective governance. But this is not apparent today. Something else is at work compared to 2003, when bijli-sadak-paani made a difference.

All data sourced from statesofindia.cmie.com

The author is managing director & CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy P Ltd