Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 2

In my last post (read here), I had written about the recently concluded state elections in 5 states with focus on Rajasthan. In this, I intend to cover Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and try to drive home the message of the confusing signals coming out for an election strategist and watcher.

In MP, in an evenly poised, see-saw battle, Congress eventually scraped through and has now formed the government with support from other parties, having just fallen short of the half way mark. At the outset, it would appear that for BJP’s performance wasn’t that bad considering that it has been in power in MP for the last 15 years. The question is – “Is it par for the course for voters to get tired with a party which has been in power for more than 2 terms?” I don’t think so. Hence brushing aside a defeat owing to just “Anti-Incumbency factor” may not be correct. There could be and usually there are other factors at play which make people ring in a change.  Considering the fact that eventually BJP ended with the same vote share as Congress with just few seats less, it doesn’t look like as if a severe Anti-Incumbency wave swept away BJP or Shivraj Chauhan.

To be fair to the BJP and Shivraj Chauhan, MP has seen a sea change on the positive side during the last 15 years. It is no longer cursed as part of the “BIMARU” states of India! Those who have visited the state in the last 10 years can see the visible improvement in the road infrastructure not just in the cities but the connecting towns. 87% of rural roads in MP are surfaced (road laid with bitumen or tar), which is higher than the national average (64 %)!  Similarly the progress on the electricity and water supply fronts are visible.

Bijli, Sadak, Paani as far as I heard, were no longer the issues in MP! So what were? Have the voters punished a government even after showing visible vikas?

Farm crisis is one reason which has been talked about. Here again, there are missed signals. Madhya Pradesh has reported the best agricultural growth in India over eight years and yet there is widespread farm unrest. It’s clear that BJP has lost in rural pockets with a seat share drop from 67% to 42% in 2018 Vs 2013. However surprisingly in Mandsaur which was the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation few months back, BJP retained its tally of 3 seats! Similarly in Neemuch district, BJP retained all its 3 seats!

Coming to urban centres, BJP’s major losses came from here unlike Gujarat where it was saved by urban Gujarat! As mentioned before, there has been visible development in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior,..  In fact, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city as per the Swachh Bharat survey in 2018 for the 2nd consecutive year. Bhopal came in 2nd!  Even then, BJP major losses in this election came from the urban pockets! The seat share fell from 90% in the urban areas in 2013 to 55% in 2018!

It looks like BJP in MP has been felled by the weight of expectations and not on its standalone performance which has not been so bad. The expectations could be with respect to the State’s progress from what it has achieved so far and also of the Centre’s promises to usher in the Achhe Din! In his column – “No proof required”, Dr. Surjit Bhalla calls the election results – “The Revolution of Rising expectations”! It is possible that in spite of the local BJP Government under the leadership of the “Mamaji” – Shivraj Chauhan delivering governance, the people expected more. More in terms of jobs, more in terms of disposable income and finally “Yeh Dil maange sub kuch more”!

In MP, the other factor is BJP lost 10 seats with a narrow margin of under 1000 votes!  Again, if you look at the swing of votes against BJP which is at 4%, it is not a big swing but reduced BJP’s number of seats from 165 to 109, a drop of almost 1/3rd of the seats! What does this say of BJP’s famed booth level management tactics and WhatsApp outreach programmes??? What happened to the “Panna Pramukhs” this time?

The fact that BJP lost 10 seats by a margin which was lower than the NOTA votes polled in those seats would lend credence probably to a simmering anger among a section of loyal BJP voters to teach a lesson to the party!  It would be interesting to see if this anger is temporary or permanent enough to afflict a damage to BJP’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha polls!

Coming to Telangana, the TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) party under K. Chandrasekhar Rao(KCR) successfully saw off the Anti-Incumbency and managed to not just win, but win by a landslide! I have not looked at Telangana closely but as far as I saw, TRS planned out the 5 year period well.

In the 1st 3 years, KCR’s son K.T.Rama Rao was in the forefront of pitching the state to get investments. In this effort, they rolled out the red carpet to industrialists and companies in India and abroad with a promise of industry friendly policies. In the centre’s ranking of states for “Ease of doing business”, Telangana consistently came 2nd with its not friendly neighbour Andhra Pradesh coming 1st. The previous year, Telangana and AP had jointly topped the charts!

In the last 18 months though, Telangana has been focussing on welfare initiatives. Free housing for the poor, Direct cash subsidy for farmers,.., all right at the nick of time in the last year of the rule!  It ended up spending more than on Agriculture, Irrigation,… than the Rest of India.

It looks like KCR’s government divided the 5 year period into 2 halves. In the 1st half they focussed on long term, reformist initiatives, while the 2nd half closer to elections they came out with short term, populist welfare schemes that would give electoral results. A closer analysis of how this pans out probably may provide a working model for all those seeking to beat Anti-Incumbency. That of balancing long term with short term by focussing on reforms and structural changes in the 1st 2/3 years of the rule and resort to populist, welfare programmes in the last 2 years closer to elections.

With the many confusing signals emanating from these results, it becomes all the more difficult for an election strategist particularly of the BJP to come up with a winning formula for 2019! But here, one must not forget, that India has begun to vote differently between state elections and National elections. Therefore one should linearly extrapolate the trends from these Semi-finals to the finals at their own peril. However, it is safe to conclude that with these crucial wins in the Hindi heartland, Congress has got its mojo back and BJP is on the back foot. The next few months will be interesting to see how the final narrative for the 2019 elections unfolds.

Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 1

What has been touted as the semi-finals before the Grand finals in May 2019 just got over in India and the results from the 5 state elections are finally out. Though there have been surprises, more than the eventual result, the extent of the win or the loss from whichever side you look at it, has been more surprising. While in 3 states the margin of victory to the victor has been phenomenal, in the other 2 states, it’s been quite small. There has been many analyses and take aways of the verdict from pundits in the last few days but, to me, there is an important one. Which is, never before in recent times you have such confusing signals emanating from the voter from the heartland states. Before I go on to elaborate my hypothesis, honest disclosure. I am not from these states. I had not travelled to theses states in the run up to the elections. I have not had “elections on my plate” to gauge the mood of the voter. So my take aways are nothing more than armchair punditry based on what I gather.  So please keep a container of salt ready by your side as you read this.

This week, let me dwell on Rajasthan which according to me is quite interesting.

  • From BJP’s point of view, though they would like to spin the defeat in Rajasthan as extremely close and well fought out contest, in reality it has been a huge defeat. One cannot and should not gauge the extent of defeat based on opinion poll predictions or exit poll results and conclude that the fight was closer than expected. In reality, there has been a swing of 6.2% away from BJP resulting in a loss of 90 seats in an assembly of 200 compared to the last elections in 2013! This is not a narrow loss.
  • As per most of the commentariat, there have been very few plausible reasons to explain such a big defeat for the BJP.
    • First up, one of the reasons attributed was the outgoing Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s arrogance/attitude! Really? Raje is not new to the voters of Rajasthan. Before this term, she served the state as a Chief Minister for 5 years from 2003-08. She has been a MP and MLA from Rajasthan many times. She came to power in 2008 with a massive mandate defeating the Congress! So did people come to realise about her arrogant attitude only now? Or is it that she started behaving arrogantly only in the last few years?
    • The second reason attributed is – Rajasthan voters have the habit of throwing out the incumbent government and opt for a change if one goes by the trend in the last 20 years! Hence it is said that BJP giving way to Congress was on expected lines. Does it mean that people don’t care about governance and just throw out the incumbent government for the heck of it?
    • Coming to governance, Raje in the last 5 years, presided over the most reformist government among most of the states in India. Soon after she took over, Raje did the unthinkable in India of initiating labour reforms – a long-standing request from entrepreneurs and India Inc. What should have helped in attracting investments and aid economic growth, apparently has not worked, it looks like.
    • If I am not mistaken, under the support and supervision of economist Bibek Debroy, Rajasthan Government passed a bill to repeal whole lot of archaic state laws to make governance simpler.
    • In the context of UP, we are often told that people are no longer interested in Mandir politics but in development. But in Rajasthan we are told that people were unhappy with the Raje government when it decided to re-locate a few Hindu temples to give way for Metro in Jaipur!
    • Agrarian Distress – is the other reason attributed for BJP’s loss in Rajasthan. In most of states today including Rajasthan, agrarian crisis is not arising out of shortages (supply side) but due to a problem of plenty. In the sense, farmers do not get the right prices for their produce due to the excess supply. Hence the demand for higher MSPs. I don’t think higher MSPs will solve the problem in the long run, as it will shortly fuel very high food inflation which is again a bigger monster to handle, for the Government. The solution lies in raising farm income without raising MSPs beyond a point. For that, the issue to fix is the demand side bottle necks.  As I understand, some of the reforms undertaken by the Raje Government like creation of one agriculture market,… were supposed to take care of rationalising the licensing of mandis,… Have they not worked??? May be more ground needs to be covered here.
    • As you can see from the above points, Good Economics has not yielded Good political returns.
    • At the same time, it appears that the Raje Government’s waiver of farm loans of up to Rs. 50000 hasn’t worked either! So Good Populism has not yielded results also!

If you are an election strategist for the BJP, you many tend to conclude that these reforms or populism are of no use to win elections may decide to have a strategy to just pander to emotive issues. In Rajasthan have the emotive issues worked?

  • While the Raje Government started off well with the above focussed development agenda, I do believe that it lost its away trying to pander to extreme elements within the BJP. The government was practically silent during the entire Padmaavat episode when lumpen elements were running amuck.
  • In Alwar, there were violence due to cow vigilantism which the government was guilty of promoting. However cow vigilantism failed to come to the rescue of BJP in this region, where the party lost 16 of the 18 assembly seats!
  • So raising the pitch on emotive issues hasn’t worked either.

In the final count, the difference in vote share of just 0.5% may also indicate that while there has been a 6.2% erosion of vote share for the BJP, the anti-incumbency has not been strong enough to significantly dent the voter base of BJP. Hence, one will extrapolate the state election results and predict that BJP will face a rout in 2019 Lok Sabha elections at his own peril.

But in this state elections, what have the voters voted for or against? Was it

A positive vote for the Congress? Or

A Negative vote against the BJP? Or

Negative against the BJP at the Centre or State? Or

Neither a positive vote for the Congress nor a negative vote against the BJP?

Hence, my hypothesis that the voters while booting out BJP have also sent confusing signals as to why they have done so!

Post Script: When you know that he has been a CM twice over before and failed to win a second term in Rajasthan why would you again make Ashok Gehlot the CM for the 3rd time? This was a great opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to put his stamp and I guess, he let it go!