From Pre-polls To Post-polls

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Dec 18 2003, 05:30am hrs
If social anthropologists were to study India from a distance and particularly through the eyes of news-making events, it might appear that our society does three things with great emotion: weddings, movies and elections. Sometimes all rolled up into one, with the lines of separation now blurring at a growing pace. Only once in a while there comes a remarkable cricketing victory that takes over public imagination, but in the end nothing beats the sheer energy and total life-hours spent in the production, indulgence, discussion and voyeurism of Weddings, Movies and Democracy. Our very own WMD, a collective genre for, by and about us.

In the last month, media energy has shifted from pre-poll to post-poll analysis of recent state elections, and the fact that most pundits and surveys were wrong this time which they have consistently been since 1996 has not deterred anyone from proffering an opinion.

A major theme to emerge is the perceived failure of Sonia Gandhi, whose leadership is under attack once again, both within (on the quiet) and from outside. These elections are seen as such a huge defeat for Sonia that the day after results, news anchors and editors were brazenly questioning her acumen, judgement, intuition, everything. One NDTV anchor was openly derisive about the great big walls around her house, The Times of India had a front-page cartoon showing a small truculent Sonia bawling away in the arms of Sheila Dixit, and The Asian Age headlined its main story Congress wrecked, Sonia sunk. Everybody was preaching or talking down to her, including erstwhile and maybe future allies.

The storyline would have been different had the Congress scorecard read 2-2 instead of 1-3, which it could easily have. Despite the antics of Ajit Jogi and the speculation around the double sting operations in Chhattisgarh, the main story of these elections is Rajasthan, where the Congress should and would have won. The state was governed reasonably well not great, but better than previous regimes with no major scam or scandal. Despite the famine, which incidentally did not adversely impact the whole state, the Gehlot regime had an edge.

What went wrong First, the ticket distribution. Almost two-thirds of sitting legislators, not to mention relatives of big leaders and other unknown aspirants, were given tickets by Gehlot, when many if not most should have been bypassed, if for nothing else than for gross negligence towards their constituents. Not to mention that in the last 10 years, sitting legislators have a re-election record of less than 50-50. That itself loaded the dice.

Second, the Congress campaign was lacklustre, marked by Gehlots overconfidence. After all, every poll put him on top. And third, there was such infighting that, should seat-wise analysis be done, it will turn out the narrow margins of Congress defeat were due to rebel candidates supported on the quiet.

Of course, caste equations and the BJPs many promises to government employees also contributed. But this was really an election which the Congress lost rather than which the BJP won. This is no defence of Sonia, and it can be argued that she has killed her own mystique and lowered the level of political debate by constantly indecorous accusations, but Rajasthan is not her fault, at least not directly. It is more an indictment of Gehlot or perhaps the Congress coterie from Delhi who ran the show.

The main lesson from these elections is that anti-incumbency, infighting, alliances are major determinants. At least some of us are not that sanguine about the maturity of Indian voters, for what explains the results from Himachal and Tamil Nadu in their last state elections The BJP and TDP may want to remember that swings in public mood and inexplicability of why some issues do or dont resonate with the masses are built in and, combined with an exaggerated self-opinion, can often destroy a winning hand.

There is continuing and rapid demographic change within the electorate, and almost 20 million youngsters predisposed to emotion and disenchantment enter the voting age every year. It may be far easier to identify mistakes that cost rather than strategies that work. Chandrababu Naidu may want to talk to Ashok Gehlot rather than Pramod Mahajan. On what not to do.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors