Monday, December 8, 2008

BE HONEST AND PERFORM OR STEP ASIDE AND BE GONE

India's 'illiterate' millions, much criticised by India's elite, have delivered an educated electoral verdict that has surprised both the BJP and the Congress as well as many political analysts. This trend was started perhaps by the people of Gujarat last year when they emphatically brought back Narendra Modi as CM despite the best efforts of all conceivable players to ensure his defeat. It has now been confirmed by the people of all the five states that went to the polls recently.

Delhi's largely urban middle class has turned in a stunning verdict by giving Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit a spectacular and unprecedented third term, leaving the BJP shocked and demoralised. The people of Mizoram, where the fight was between the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF), the people have literally demolished the ruling MNF, throwing out CM Zoramthanga after two terms. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has been shown the door by a narrow margin. The people of Madhya Pradesh have emphatically returned the humble Shivraj Singh Chauhan and rejected BJP rebel Uma Bharati. In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh has also been voted back to power with a clear majority.

The one common thread that connects this verdict in all five states is that people have voted to reward performance and punish lack of it. But it is not just performance that they have looked at. They have looked closely at the 'honesty' factor too this time. It may be recalled that Narendra Modi's slogan that he neither 'took' money nor allowed anyone to 'take' it, had caught the people's imagination in Gujarat. He was perhaps the first politician to openly talk about honesty and corruption in such a direct, personal manner. He made ordinary people in his state realise that it was their inalienable right to expect and demand personal honesty from their top leaders. That message has now clearly hit home elsewhere too.

Sheila Dikshit, Shivraj Chauhan and Raman Singh have all been rewarded not only for their excellent, visible performance but also their spotless personal integrity, resulting in the people returning an unambiguous verdict in their favour. That is where Vijaye Raje has suffered. She too had governed Rajasthan well and ushered in a new era of progress in that state. But, she was repeatedly dogged by corruption charges. That is possible why she has lost, even though very narrowly by a vote share of just 1.5%, with the BSP taking away most of the vote share that it lost. 62 rebels may have hammered in the final nail, but they would not have been able to make any dent had she had as clean an image as the the victorious incumbents in other states have.

In Delhi, it is more than likely that the voters would have been influenced to some extent even by events at the national level, with the Central government also functioning from the city. The BJP is saying that it lost primarily because it picked up a wrong candidate in Vijay Kumar Malhotra as its Chief Ministerial candidate and would have won had it chosen Arun Jaitley. The team at NDTV led by Prannoy Roy and Barkha Dutt have been trying their best to convince everyone that voters have punished the BJP for making terror a poll issue and that Mumbai 11/26 has actually worked against the party. There are others like Yogendra Yadav who believe exactly the opposite and think that the BJP gained around one percent after 11/26.

In my view, the Manmohan and Advani factors played a reasonably significant role in the defeat of the BJP in Delhi, even though no one is talking about it. It may be recalled that Dr Mamnohan Singh had earned the respect of a lot of Indians for showing great resolve and vision in getting his own baby, the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, through despite tough political and media opposition. Before the deal finally got through thanks primarily to the PM's unwavering commitment, Mr LK Advani came across as a petty politician working to scuttle what most thought was a good deal for the country, a deal that he would have grabbed gleefully had he been the PM. His party had then gone berserk in its efforts to get to power by defeating the Manmohan Singh government in a most unbecoming manner. While that may not have influenced many voters outside Delhi, in the capital it probably did alter the voting decisions of a sizeable number of middle class citizens.

There is another significant lesson that these elections have driven home yet again. The role of the media in ensuring victory or defeat is minimal. This was first proved by Mayawati who has grown from strength to strength with virtually no media exposure and interaction. Neither she nor any other leader of the BSP is ever seen trying to score cheap political points in TV studios, like the same two and a half leaders of the Congress and BJP do, almost every day. Shiela Dixit, despite being the Chief Minister of India's capital, is hardly seen on TV. Shivraj Chauhan and Raman Singh have also almost wholly shunned the media. Only Vasundhara Raje was media savvy.

What do these elections tell us about the vote gathering abilities of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi? Everyone knows that in all the preceding elections over the last few years, the Congress had suffered humiliating defeats across the country with them being projected as the star campaigners of the party and no clear state level leaders. Is there not a telling lesson for the Congress party here? The Congress has won in Delhi due to the very visible results that Sheila Dikshit has delivered in 10 years, helped by the good image of the PM and the political hara kiri that Mr Advani and the BJP committed in opposing the Nuclear Deal. In Rajasthan, the Congress has not won; the BJP has lost. In MP and Chhattisgarh too, the Congress has lost.

What about the BSP? Mayawati has significantly increased the party's vote share in Delhi from from 8.7% to 14%. But in the other three states, she has about plateaued. What does that say? Despite her clever social engineering, Mayawati is not going to be easily able to increase her non-dalit constituency. Why? All those corruption charges against her and the popular perception that she is not honest may not make dalit voters ditch her, but others are not going to weigh her with a different yardstick. They are going to make her pay for it. Thanks to her not so clean image, Mayawati may well have hit a wall in her march to the throne to Delhi, a wall that she may find difficult to breach, particularly if her opponents are honest leaders capable of delivering results.

The next general elections are due in the next six months. The semi-final elections in five states have not thrown up any clear national trends. These elections have been won and lost by local leaders. Neither the First Family of the Congress nor the BJP's Prime Minister-in-waiting have emerged any taller or indispensable. If anything, leaders in the states have shown that they have it in them to carry their parties to victory almost on their own steam.

Possibly the one big lesson for the BJP is that Mr Advani is not going to be able to get them past the winning post in the Lok Sabha polls. He may, in fact, prove to be a liability, out of sync with times, just like VK Malhotra has proved to be in Delhi. The same goes for the Congress. Depending on Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to lead the party to victory will probably prove to be fatal. The aura of the Family is now visible only in TV studios and to rootless Congress leaders. That is why there is no joy in the Congress camp despite better than expected results. India's voters no longer connect with the Gandhis on the basis of what their ancestors did, their only USP that does not sell like it used to.

Sagarika Ghose is right when she says that India's voters have been the real stars of these elections. Be honest and perform or step aside and be gone. This is the unequivocal message that they have given in all the five states that went to the polls recently. There is no reason to believe that they will choose very differently in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. The party or coalition that is best able to project a leader and put up candidates who meet these aspirations of the people will most likely find itself in power at the Centre next year.

This post has figured in Mid Day.