A Precursor To Two-party System

Updated: Dec 7 2003, 05:30am hrs
My most interesting day was the day after the counting more than the day of the voting or the day of the counting. I have read the tortuous explanations offered by analysts and columnists on the results of the elections in three states and Delhi, and the winner by a huge margin is Harish Khare of The Hindu for having discovered the rainmaker as the force behind the results!

Everyone was wrong. I got Rajasthan wrong. There were no surprises in the results from Delhi, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. (If anyone believed that the outcome in these states would be the opposite of the actual result, it is because he/she must have wished the opposite result. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride). Sheila Dikshit won because of her clean image and good governance. Digvijay Singh lost because he read the wrong books and listened to the wrong people on governance. Ajit Jogi lost a winnable election because he was too clever by half. The inexplicable result is Congress defeat in Rajasthan.

The Positive Side: Let us first look at the positive side of these elections. The BJP has come a long way from its origins. It must have been quite tempting to mount the Hindutva horse that romped home to victory in Gujarat. The Hindutva mascot (Narendra Modi) was ready and willing, and neither Arun Jaitley nor Pramod Mahajan is a squeaky-clean secularist. But to their credit, this time they played the development tune and emerged victorious. In Delhi, the development agenda was pre-empted by Dikshit; and in Chhattisgarh it was not required at all against a self-destructing Ajit Jogi.

The election results have, in my view, corrected a glaring asymmetry in the governance of the country. There was an asymmetry because BJP rules at the Centre but in only three states, while the Congress ruled in 14 states but not at the Centre. After these elections, the system, as a whole, looks more like a two-party system. I concede that there is still some distance to travel before we have a truly two-party system. Purely state-level parties like Shiv Sena, TDP, DMK, AIADMK, SP, BJD or AGP will not fade away soon or easily, but every one of them has shown a willingness to be co-opted as an ally of BJP.

A two-party system is the best thing that can happen to us. In such a system, the voters will have a clear choice between the two key players. Besides, winning will be sweet and losing will not be too bitter.

The loser will adorn the Opposition benches and can play the waiting game. Each party will be compelled to unveil an agenda, take positions on crucial issues, convince the people that it has a better plan for every problem and, above all, announce its playing eleven. In that situation, BJP cannot enjoy the luxury of speaking in many voices (and being different things to different sections). Equally, Congress cannot afford to hide a whole party behind its leader.

The Development Dividend: Development as the theme song of politics will yield multiple dividends. For example, it will put divisive issues on the backburner. Look at the transformation it has worked on Uma Bharti. She may still wear the ochre robes of a sanyasin but, in the office of chief minister, she is unlikely to spew the rhetoric of 1992.

On Congress side, the dividend may be in the form of a less reticent leader and less ambivalence in taking positions on economic reforms, minority rights and corruption. Both parties may be compelled to declare another welcome dividend promoting new and younger leaders, allowing them to assume responsibility and projecting a collective leadership.

A two-party system will also largely remove the uncertainties that an election holds for the people. If the ruling party is on a losing wicket, the voters need not worry about the next government or about its stability. One party-government will be replaced by another, and the business of government will go on without unsettling interruptions or shocks.

From every point of view, the results of these polls bring greater hope and cheer. 2:2 would have been more even-handed justice, but 3:1 is not so bad. After all, Congress still has 11 states under its umbrella, and can begin preparing for the big battle of 2004.

An Election Primer: The Congress would also do well to learn a few lessons from the BJP school of election management:

Firstly, there is a new voter out there. He/she has no time for history, no sense of nostalgia and no permanent loyalties. He/she looks to the future and follows whoever appears more capable of delivering on roads, electricity, water and jobs. Incumbency is a millstone.

Development is a tune that the party in Opposition can sing better than the party in government. Whatever development has taken place, there still will be a lot of under-development. Hence, attack works better than defence. *Old warhorses are better put to sleep. Voters respond enthusiastically to new colts and mares.

Elections can be reduced to one phrase: connecting with the people. Television makes the connection. He who is most frequently seen on TV is the leader. The 30-second byte is the message. By that standard, BJP had a dozen leaders to Congress one (Sonia Gandhi).

Bloc voting is the rule all over the world. But here, caste usually determines the bloc. Electioneering is about wooing and winning blocs. Women seem to be emerging as a bloc, and may be the deciding factor in 2004.

In 2004, BJP will be the incumbent party, and will be on the defending side. Vajpayee will appear to be the old warhorse. His appeal among women is uncertain and unproved. Therefore, if the lessons of 2003 are learnt by Congress, it is possible to turn the tables on BJP. For the good of democracy, Congress should immediately don the battle gear. The last thing it should do is to appoint a committee under the very decent, very non-political Manmohan Singh to go into the causes of its defeat. The causes and the remedies are there in full view of anyone who cares to see.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)