Assembly elections 2016: Voter now focused on development, not caste, religion or dynasty

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Updated: May 21, 2016 9:10:32 AM

The voter is now focused on development, rather than the math of caste, creed, dynasty or religion

In my previous article (End of the road for Congress?, May 16), I had speculated that the results of the assembly elections would indicate that any association with the Congress party was the equivalent of the kiss of political death. As per my forecast, in all the four states, the Congress lost, and most horribly in Assam—a state where not only the party had ruled for the last 15 years, but also where, in 2011 assembly elections, the BJP was able to win only 5 out of 126 assembly seats. The Muslims have a 34% population share in Assam. Under the assumption that Muslims would not, cannot, should not vote for the BJP or parties associated with it, the large Muslim population was meant to ensure BJP’s defeat. This did not happen; the final 2016 vote shares: BJP+ 44%, Congress 31% and a predominantly Muslim party, AIUDF, 13%. BJP+ won by a landslide—86 seats to only 26 seats for the Congress and 13 to AIUDF.

Ordinarily, we would state that this happens when the opposition vote is split. But that does not account for the “Muslim not voting for BJP” expectation. Clearly math did not work—something else did. How did this happen, i.e., how did BJP win the election in Assam, almost on its own? What is very likely to have happened is that an unexpectedly large fraction of Muslims (around 15 to 25%) voted for the BJP alliance.

In a related (but seemingly unrelated) manner, what was the likely basis of Mamata’s landslide in West Bengal? These are important questions, and I attempt to answer them below.

Some important background reference points. First, these state elections were the first since 2014 not preceded by any commotion, etc. about an intolerant and communal BJP at the Centre. For the last two years, two forces have combined to defeat, or at least unsettle, the BJP in its electoral campaigns. First, the Tea party elements within the BJP (Tea party elements defined as those who believe in beef ban politics, ghar wapsi, love jihad, moral censorship, etc.) have been only too eager to claim their 15 minutes of infamy by making rabid statements about anything under the sun. These intolerant statements were then amplified by an overeager Congress party, which was always willing to capitalise on the Tea party commotion by creating their own commotion e.g. award wapsi. But all of this would be for nought if the opinion making English press did not join in with full gusto and exaggeration. The net result—intolerance and communal tensions peaked during the voting in all post 2014 elections, and fell to zero the minute the voting was over. So bizarre and co-incidental that only a conspiracy theory can help explain these cosmic happenings.

But it didn’t happen in 2016. Why not? First, it appears that the Tea party perpetrators were told, in no uncertain terms, by the BJP to either shut up or ship out. They chose the option of shutting up. But why would Congress let go of a survival, if not winning, formula? They didn’t—they tried, tried and failed. Recall that in the midst of the election season, with Tea party elements silent, the Congress party floated its own Tea party member—Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Rajya Sabha Muslim Congress leader, stated that he did not see any difference between the Hindu RSS and the dreaded Muslim ISIS. Translating, how do you think the Congress would react if a responsible senior BJP leader said that he saw no difference between Indira Gandhi and Hitler? Both statements are condemnably wrong, but one was made in March to purely obtain a reaction in time for the April election, create commotion and intolerance, and result in an election defeat for the BJP.

The BJP was stone-deaf to the provocation. Election in Assam proceeded on schedule, and the BJP won a historical, and overwhelming mandate. The Assam result also shows that the Modi government is willing to learn from its past mistakes. Notice how they ran the Assam campaign—local leaders, growth and development issues, etc. And when the time came for the BJP to celebrate on May 19, nobody said we should have domestic laddoos rather than foreign cakes; further, the cake was decorated in green, and not saffron.

There is another large lesson for all politicians, and political junkies, from what happened in West Bengal. The Congress and the Left had observed the Bihar cohabitation of political foes, and concluded that this “experiment” was immensely replicable. In 2011, a simple addition of the Congress and Left vote share gives us 49%, in contrast to a 39% vote share for AITC (Trinamool Congress). In a two party system, that would be a landslide. Congress and Left Front politicians, with more than umpteen years of political experience, added two plus two and decided the answer was four. So they ganged up against Mamata, and dreamt of an easy victory Bihar style. After all, Bihar is next door to West Bengal, so what worked a few miles away, should work…

In the end, two plus two ended up with zero, not four. Why? Because Bihar happened, not only because of the successful intolerance campaign but also because of some chemistry in the voting for Nitish and Lalu—the Bihar voter probably thought: One Kurmi, another Yadav, what is the difference? However, the Bengali voter was faced with the following kind of choice—as an Indian, vote for either Germany winning the second world war, or Japan. Sometimes, the math just does not add up.

It was eerie, but if one closed one’s eyes during the West Bengal election, and heard the AITC politicians, they sounded identical to Modi’s 2014 electoral campaign. It is not that Mamata was copying Modi. It is just that, unknown to the Congress and the Left, but known to everyone else, the voter is demanding the same from all politicians—infrastructure, bijli, jobs, paani. The voter is saying give us development, stupid. And only the stupid are not listening.

It brings tears to members of my generation to see this demand among the poor and the emerging middle class of India. Girls getting educated, fertility rate going down, liberation of both men and women in the workplace, emancipation with equality, the Patels, and RSS, demanding economic, not caste based reservations, and voters demanding development, and not crass politics, or religion or caste based politics. Times have changed, and how. Long live democracy, long live development—the promised acche din are coming to the doorstep of the poor, the downtrodden, and the discriminated against. That is the lesson of the Assam-West Bengal elections.

The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York based macro policy advisory group. Twitter: @surjitbhalla

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