Go easy before you declare these state election results a ‘referendum on Modi’
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Go easy before you declare these state election results a ‘referendum on Modi’

Anti-incumbency has finally pierced through the ‘Modi Factor’ and the momentum is with Congress, but a lot can change in competitive electoral politics.

By Anand Vardhan

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The exercise of offering seminal takeaways from election results is a professional necessity for analysts but holds little value for politicians. As competitive politics is steeped in the race to grab the immediate, the broad conclusions drawn from poll outcomes are fraught with the risk of being falsified within a few years, if not months.

So, it would be safe to stick to the immediate while identifying signals that emanate from the results of the five Assembly elections — signals that matter in the short-term script of national politics.

First, the most obvious one. Anti-incumbency has finally pierced through the ‘Modi Factor’ to hit Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in three Hindi heartland states. It narrowly failed to do so last winter in Gujarat, but now it has been strong enough to unseat BJP governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The beneficiary in these states has been Congress, and that made it one of the clear bipartisan contests between a national party, with pre-Independence origins and the only strong national party to have emerged in post-Independence India. In reflecting on BJP’s losses, one must not lose sight of the fact that the results are as much about Congress’s success in leveraging anti-incumbency.

However, except in Chhattisgarh where Congress inflicted a rout on the BJP with 68 seats against BJP’s 15 in a 90-member Assembly, the extent of anti-incumbency wasn’t of clinching scale in the other two heartland states. In Madhya Pradesh, despite impressive showing, Congress didn’t touch the majority mark on its own. In restricting Congress to 114, two short of the majority mark in a 230-member Assembly, BJP made it a very close contest by bagging 109 seats even after 15 years of governing the state.

Similarly, in Rajasthan, which is known for a see-saw pattern of voting out incumbent state governments, the Congress win hasn’t been as conclusive as it would have liked. While it restricted BJP to 73 and won 99 seats, short of the majority mark in a 199-member Assembly, it wasn’t a cakewalk to the degree it was expected. Its performance could be seen against the scale of BJP sweeping 163 seats to unseat Congress government in 2013.

In Mizoram, Congress was at the receiving end of anti-incumbency as Mizo National Front (MNF) won 26 seats to win a clear majority in a 40-member Assembly, reducing Congress to only five seats. The defeat means that Congress now isn’t in power in any of the eight-state northeast region of the country.

To its credit, only Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), under the leadership of K Chandrashekar Rao, managed to beat anti-incumbency and it did it with aplomb — winning 88 seats in a 119-member Assembly. With dismal performance of both the BJP and the Congress in the state, Telangana can now be seen as the second state in the south, along with Tamil Nadu, where national parties have been pushed to irrelevance. The TRS win is also significant for power consolidation of the party that was seen as a single-issue party for its vanguard role in the movement for a separate state formation. In the first decade of this century, when three new states were formed, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) couldn’t use the political capital of a similar movement to consolidate control over political power in the state.

Second, irrespective of the extent of the anti-incumbency, results would be seen in the context of clues it has for next year’s Lok Sabha polls. What, however, isn’t clear is whether it constitutes a relevant context. There are no easy answers to this. Speaking numerically, these five states constitute 83 Lok Sabha seatsfourand BJP had won 63 of these in 2014. If numbers hold and seat conversion is seamless till LS polls, which may be a big if,  an estimate puts Congress at 46 seats and BJP winning 20. There are precedents that suggest both — such projections sometimes work, sometimes don’t.

As a precursor to the 2019 showdown, the context could be sought in inviting the inevitable question — were these polls a referendum on Modi? It’s a question that has accompanied all significant polls since Modi became Prime Minister. Besides convenient opposition strategy, Modi’s hectic campaigning around the year has also contributed to such questions. It can work both ways — sometimes reinforcing the repository of command, at other times, diminishing political capital. The latest results may hint at the latter.

That, however, shouldn’t deflect from the fact that Modi remains the party’s most potent vote catcher. Some would even credit his presence on the campaign for limiting strong anti-incumbency to an extent that defeats didn’t turn into routs in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Besides campaigning in two heartland states with a baggage of 15 years of anti-incumbency and in one with see-saw pattern of changing governments, this campaign was different for Modi in one more way.

He was campaigning for incumbent chief ministers who can be said to be a pre-Modi guard of state leadership — Shivraj Singh, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje Scindia were established leaders in their states before Modi emerged on the national scene. It was different from state leaders and chief ministers that the Modi-Shah regime has handpicked and promoted in their time at the helm of affairs.

Third, the advantage that these results give Congress immediately is that of momentum — a crucial one in any contest, sporting or political. It may infuse it with a new lease of political energy and more significantly, give it the elbow room for negotiations with potential partners in building an alliance for the 2019 LS polls. The negotiations wouldn’t be easy but the appeal of a party on a winning spree makes Congress more attractive for the regional players — the meeting of regional parties, including Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam (DMK), with Congress president Rahul Gandhi early this week is a clear sign of it.

The parties realise that even at a historic low of 44 seats in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party polled 10.7 crore votes (vis-à-vis BJP’s 17 crores) and that it has every possibility of only rising from that. Congress’s early alliance-building is looking more impressive when pitted against the troubles that BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been facing of late.

Even more immediately, it’s apparent that in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Congress can bank on Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to support it in crossing the majority mark comfortably, even though they couldn’t agree on a pre-poll alliance. BSP, keeping to its vote-katwa role before leveraging its gain as a disruptor or kingmaker, is facing a stiff challenge of rebuilding its diminished role in even its stronghold of Uttar Pradesh and decline in nationwide vote share — from six per cent to 4.1 per cent in the last two LS polls in 2009 and 2014 respectively.

As an occupational hazard of election analysis, there would be temptations to attribute the results to a wide range of factors — rural distress, unemployment, use of identity politics, and so on. Though such general lines of reasoning have limited utility in analysing voter behaviour — their generality makes them redundant too quickly. Moreover, different accounts can vary significantly in studying patterns of voting behaviour. For instance, a field report published in The Hindu found that in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, “the political instincts of the rural voter aren’t necessarily rooted in agriculture.”

These election results have at least one thing missing — the conspiracy theories around EVMs and the institutional integrity of Election Commission, even though Congress tried in Telangana. One more ritual that analysts can now afford do away with is the “referendum on Modi” cliché. The actual referendum results are now only five months away — not a long wait. Even those results would be neither historic nor seminal. There is no such thing in competitive electoral politics.

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