If anyone doubts that India’s democracy works – and many foreign critics do – yesterday’s assembly election results from five states surely proves them wrong. Voters in three states kept governments (and assembly members) who had done well, while those that had not performed were thrown out.
In Delhi, Congress won comfortably, led by Sheila Dikshit who has made history by being chief minister for three terms – assuming Sonia Gandhi approves her name, which she must do (she kept Dikshit waiting ten days before confirming her last time). Dikshit has performed well in a horribly difficult post, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put up a poor candidate to oppose her. The BJP also traded too heavily – with a blood-spattered advertisement carrying the words “Fight Terror: Vote BJP” – on anti-national government sentiment that followed the Mumbai terrorism.
I don’t think this negates the significance of Narendra Modi, the controversial BJP chief minister of Gujarat, being picked in a Mumbai opinion poll last week as the best national leader after the terrorist attacks (see my last post). The BJP’s Delhi candidate was weak and elderly, and its message was too negative, whereas Modi gives constructive leadership and hope to his supporters.
Congress also won in Rajasthan, where the aristocratic BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje, failed to run an effective government and connect with the people. This result was also significant in terms of terrorism because Jaipur, the state’s capital, was hit by a series of bomb blasts in May.
And in Madhya Pradesh, a mild-mannered BJP chief minister, who has a good developmental record, defeated the bitterly divided Congress Party.
The results challenge one of the most over-stated generalisations (and simplistic lazy media reporting) of Indian politics – that elections are usually dominated by an “anti-incumbency” wave that throws out sitting governments. What these elections have shown is what in fact usually happens – good governments and political leaders win and bad ones lose. The expectation that anti-incumbency will dominate election results is based the depressing assumption that most governments in India are bad.
The Congress Party, which leads India’s coalition government, did much better than expected, especially after being criticised heavily for the Mumbai attacks. The problem now is that many of its leaders may mis-interpret the polls and feel less impelled to sharpen up their act. That would be a mis-reading of the polls, which rewarded performers and threw out those who failed.
Meanwhile Mayawati, the Dalit (low caste) leader of the Uttar Pradesh-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), increased her minority stakes in some states. This will encourage her ambition to make the BSP a national party, catering for all castes, alongside Congress and the BJP.
Some politicians are good!
The NDTV 24/7 tv channel ended one of its news programmes last night with presenters laughing about a remark by a politician that “some politicians are good”. They were trying to explain how there had been high turnouts in the elections, despite the anti-politician mood that followed the Mumbai attacks.
It was a nice sign off line – especially when one of the politicians on the programme laughed that he “wasn’t sure” when asked to endorse the remark.
The emphasis of course was on the word “some”, which always means “not many” when said with a certain inflection.
Rahul Gandhi “getting into his stride”
One of the least noticed quotes of the day came from Digvijay Singh, a veteran Congress Party general secretary, when he was asked what contribution Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s anointed prime-minister-in-waiting sometime-in-the-future, had made to electioneering when his mother, Sonia Gandhi, had been kept away by ill health. Singh acknowledged that Rahul had made a contribution and then, as the camera turned away from him, smiled mischievously and said “he is getting into his stride”.
Lessons for the general election
No-one can sensibly draw conclusions from these results about how the general election, due by next March or April, will turn out. Nationally, Congress will have a problem because of the economic down-turn and security worries. But the BJP will need to put up constructive policies to cash in on those failings. Regional parties, which ultimately could decide who leads the next coalition government, also need to note that success breeds success.