Sunday, March 12, 2017

What we learn from recent elections in India

In an extraordinary move one fine evening in November last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced sudden withdrawal of 86% of India’s currency in circulation, in what he termed as a crackdown on black money. In a predominantly cash based economy like India, it was an unprecedented move and has no parallel anywhere in the world. While the last word on “notebandi” has not been said yet, several elections – both local bodies and states - since then confirm voters have not been averse to the action. This is in sharp contrast to what was shown incessantly on electronic media during those eventful days of acute currency shortages. Besides a verdict on demonetization, here are some takeaways from recent elections in the country not just in the five states that went to polls last month, but elsewhere as well.

Democracy is flourishing in India as voters demand performance & accountability
The mainstream media has no touch with reality. I wonder how they justify the crores they get as salary. For example, the sheer scale of BJP’s election victory in Uttar Pradesh is mindboggling. Yet, throughout the election campaign, the media painted a picture of a keen contest between the “UP ke ladke” Vs. Narendra Modi, with Mayawati’s BSP thrown in for some additional spice. The media narrative portrayed a largely equal fight, or occasionally an edge to the BJP depending on whom you believed. As if to justify prior coverage, the exit polls also reflected similar trends, with BJP a bit ahead of the rest but not too much. But it all fell flat when the results were declared. This is true not just for U.P. but elsewhere as well. Recall that the non-stop coverage for more than a month of the poor “suffering” in bank queues (some even died!) also turned out to be top class fiction. Clearly, if you are watching too much TV, especially the newsroom debates & “expert” analyses, you are wasting your time. Go, get a life.

There is no substitute for hard work. Narendra Modi’s charisma sits on top of several decades of solid ground level work by RSS & several of its affiliate organizations in the remotest corners of the country. You cannot build a sustainable electoral model without some real groundwork & voter connect at the grassroots. Mulayam Singh Yadav built Samajwadi Party from scratch. He has spent his whole life in the rough & tumble of U.P.’s realpolitik, connecting with people, building relations and nurturing the party to what it is. In the 2012 U.P. State Assembly elections, people voted for Samajwadi Party with “Netaji” in mind. But it was Akhilesh who was made the CM. You can inherit party posts but not the personal touch & rapport with the people. You have to build that yourself. Governing a State & showcasing a couple of projects is one thing, having a grassroots level connect with the people that makes them vote for you again & again is another. It is no surprise that cutting across party lines, one can see that most second generation politicians are failures.

There are no shortcuts to success, no substitute for real groundwork and people connect
Leadership matters. In Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi staked his personal reputation at risk and led the battle from the front. There is no doubt that BJP could not have pulled off such a huge success if Modi had stayed away from campaigning or only made token appearances. Ideology has ceased to matter. Choosing your party is no longer a question of ideology you subscribe to. All parties call themselves socialist and secular. Nobody reads party manifestos. Even freebies have ceased to matter, if only because everyone promises a bountiful of them, so the factor gets neutralized. People want forceful, decisive leadership.

There are no vote banks. The “secular” narrative is dead. Sixty five percent of India’s population is below the age of 35. The median age of an Indian is 27.6 years. The generation which saw Partition has passed away. To a large section of today’s voters, even the Ayodhya demolition is “history”. And voters are no longer swayed by what happened in history. The BJP has successfully shed its “communal” label. Even Muslim attitudes towards BJP are changing. But like an Ostrich who buries its head in the sand, the old generation “secular” politicians - most of them past their retirement age - refuse to see this reality. Even the caste factor is overrated. Just because one can generate caste-wise statistics and blabber some nonsense, it does not follow that voters who cast their vote ‘vote their caste’. Even where a correlation exists between the caste of the electorate & the elected, it does not prove causation. I have not seen a single survey or opinion poll which asked the voters why they voted for a candidate they did, and majority of the voters pointed to caste as the driving factor. No wonder sand it slipping from under the feet of parties who thrived on such narrow agendas. In an article three years back, I called such parties “Dodos of Indian Politics”.  

Voters have become demanding. Television & radio has reached every home. Internet penetration is increasing rapidly. Literacy has improved significantly over the years. People are much more aware of what’s happening in & around them. You just can’t take them for a ride anymore with empty promises. The voters have become demanding, and politicians who fail to deliver get thrown out. This is repeatedly getting proved one election after another, be it in Nitish Kumar retaining Bihar, or the Akalis losing Punjab. 

Despite its recent spate of successes, even BJP cannot rest on its laurels. It will have to deliver genuine improvements to the lives of the people. Otherwise the same fate awaits them.

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