2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

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.