There is nothing general about a general election. It is the sum of a set of particular elections in separate but contiguous and occasionally overlapping geographical and demographic spaces.
The Indian electorate lives in concentric circles. The federal state is one definition of such a circle, but not a comprehensive one. Identities can overlap into national space, as well as shrink into regions within a state. The case of Jharkhand yesterday and Telangana today might be obvious, but even newly-formed Chhattisgarh, which offers only 11 MPs to Parliament, has voters with different priorities, as we witnessed in the recent Assembly elections. Raipur, the old haunt of veteran V.C. Shukla, went largely to the party he has rejoined, Congress. But the tribals of Bastar gave the decisive tilt to the final tally, putting the BJP way ahead with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Salwa Judum programme, in which the state Government armed tribals against Naxalites.
This was greeted with palpable despair by urban liberals. But if they want to add to their despair they should note an almost imperceptible reversal of voter-preferences. Till the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi the Congress vote was secure among tribals, Dalits and the poor; the middle classes and the rich would abandon the Congress when they wanted to. After fifteen years of Narasimha Rao, Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the BJP has made serious inroads into the affections of the underprivileged in central India. This is a serious pointer to the growing perception that the Congress has become the party of the rich.
I can think of only two elections which were fought on a single issue: the one in 1977, after the Emergency; and the one in 1984, after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Generally, there are a handful of concerns that determine the voter’s decision. But there is always a primary issue, and many secondary ones. Every one of the recent Assembly elections, from Delhi to Mizoram, was a referendum on the Chief Minister rather on the party of the CM. Mrs Sheila Dikshit won re-election in Delhi, not the Congress. The BJP was ahead of the Congress, but Mrs Dikshit was far, far ahead of the man who sought to replace her, Vijay Malhotra.
The Indian voter is more mature than the Indian politician. He was not distracted by emotion, even one as powerful as terrorism inspired by forces hostile to India. He concentrated on what mattered most in an Assembly election, good governance, and he knew that this is provided by an individual, a leader. Equally, the leader is responsible for mismanagement and corruption, where that prevails. He placed terrorism also within the matrix of good governance, for it is the duty of the state to provide security to the citizen. But his judgment was remarkably honest. He would not blame Mrs Dikshit for the collapse of authority in Mumbai. Those who failed in Mumbai, whether at the state or Central level, will be held culpable when their time comes.
Narendra Modi made an interesting point when campaigning for tougher anti-terrorism laws. He told Gujaratis during last year’s Assembly elections that he could assure them a better life, but what was the point of the assurance if they were left with no life to enjoy? He could make this an effective claim only because he had delivered on development. In Delhi, Mrs Dikhshit had the record, and the attacks on her looked like gamesmanship because they were not backed by either a fresh face or fresh ideas. Everywhere, people are tired of politics at the expense of development. And they do not care if development comes wrapped in a tricolour or saffron. The voter is now colour-neutral.
Of course victory and defeat in a state do impact the fortunes of a party. And so the advantage in the next general elections will lie with whichever coalition offers the better collection of Chief Ministers. Or, to put in another way, which team has fewer disasters in its ranks. The Congress is in serious trouble in the two large states where it is in power. It has been forced to replace its Chief Minister in Maharashtra; unwisely, it shifted merely from a callous face to a lacklustre one. In Andhra, the extraordinary rise of Chiranjeevi is a warning to both the Congress and the Telugu Desam. He is soaking up the gap between anger and what might be called lukewarmth. Its principal ally, the DMK, has become synonymous with corruption, hobbling in the process Prime Minister Singh, who has tolerated putrid partners in order to remain in office. The Congress should feel happier about its prospects in Punjab, to tick off one of its potential assets in the general election balance sheet. A political party might be a broad church, an alliance a broader faith, but every church needs a pastor.
The team must be led by someone who can display authority, and a programme that encompasses a nationwide horizon. Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani will be their respective team-leaders, of course; but the Third Front will be hampered if it cannot offer a candidate for Prime Minister.
The Delhi result might just be the best thing to happen to the BJP. If it had won, its leaders might have forgotten precisely why they were re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Media’s fixation on its urban base can be mesmerising, driving out facts from analysis. The BJP presumably has realised that the voter will not pick up anything thrown in its way. Both the slogan and the leader have to be credible. All politicians are prone to get stuck in the treacle of smugness at the first hint of success. The split decision should have sobered all parties. There was a welcome sobriety in the commentary from spokesmen of both the Congress and the BJP following the results. It should have also reaffirmed to both parties that the general election is going to be won by whichever has the better allies. Neither is strong enough to march too far ahead of its partners. This will also have an ameliorating effect on the formation of the next Government in Delhi.
December 2008 was a wake-up call. This should ensure that all political parties go into the general election with their eyes open, and common sense intact.