Seldom have any Assembly polls given so unambiguous a pointer to what is likely to happen in the Lok Sabha election. The BJP has gained eight seats in Delhi; has lost only one seat and stayed in power in Chhattisgarh; registered a substantial gain in seats — from 143 to 165 — in Madhya Pradesh; and scored its most staggering gain: from 78 to 162 out of 200 seats in Rajasthan.
By contrast, except in Chhattisgarh, where it has gained one seat, the Congress has been soundly thrashed. It has lost 75 of its 96 seats in Rajasthan; 13 out of its 71 seats in Madhya Pradesh; and 35 out of its 43 seats and been shoved into third place in Delhi. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the BJP is crowing about a ‘Modi wave’ and looking forward to a return to power in Delhi next May, and stock market prices have skyrocketed in anticipation.
But in elections based on the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system, swings in the number of seats are deceptive because they invariably exaggerate the winning margin of the largest party. A more accurate measure of the popular mood is the change in the vote share. In the recent elections, this points to a far more complex shift in public opinion. It is a shift that bodes well for Indian democracy and the future of the country if it is understood and acted upon. It can become a precursor to violence and a breakdown of governance, if it is not.
The voting pattern confirms that the Congress has lost ground, but except in Delhi, it has not been decimated. In Chhattisgarh, its vote share has increased by 2 percent. Had the BJP, too, not increased its vote (by a similar margin) at the expense of local and minor parties, the Congress would have overtaken the BJP and swept to power. So, in the end, the Congress gained only one seat and the BJP remained in power. The losers in Chhattisgarh have been independents and local parties, whose supporters have learned to shy away from wasting their vote by giving it to someone who stands no chance of coming to power. This consolidation has worked equally in favour of both the major parties. So, if there is a ‘Modi wave’, it is certainly not visible in Chhattisgarh.
In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP increased its vote share by more than 9 percent to 47 percent. But here too, the Congress has also increased its share by almost 6 percent to 38 percent at the expense of local parties and independents. Given Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s record of good governance, it is difficult to find much of a ‘Modi effect’ in the 3 percent higher consolidation in favour of the BJP.
The only place where a ‘Modi wave’ is discernible is Rajasthan, but it is not the mighty tsunami that his followers have been claiming, and the 12 percent rise in the BJP’s vote suggests. Two-thirds — 8 percent — of this has come at the expense of minor parties and independents. But in sharp contrast to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the remaining third has been wrested directly from the Congress.
The most significant result has come from Delhi. The rejection of the Congress has gone far beyond anything that can be attributed to a normal anti-incumbency sentiment. In Delhi, the party has lost an unprecedented 15 percent of its vote, and it has done so in spite of a 10.33 percent rate of growth during the past five years, a Budget in which two-thirds goes into social welfare programmes, and perhaps the highest rate of delivery to intended beneficiaries in the entire country. This impression is strengthened by the debacle in Rajasthan, where too a government with a good record for the delivery of social benefits has lost more than a tenth of its support base.
Delhi, and to a lesser extent Rajasthan, show that the Congress’ strategy of ignoring the middle class and the modern sector of the economy and relying upon handouts to the poor under the rubric of “inclusive development” has failed.
But the Delhi results show that there is no significant ‘Modi wave’ either. Despite Narendra Modi’s hectic campaigning, and the BJP leadership pulling out all stops in his favour, the party’s vote share has actually fallen by 3.2 percent. And with 31 seats in a 70-member House, it has little chance of forming a government.
Therefore, the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress has not translated into a wave in favour of Modi and the BJP. One swallow does not make a summer. But the Delhi results, at least, suggest that where voters have a credible third choice, those disillusioned by the Congress will prefer it to the BJP. There are profoundly important implications for the strategy that the so-called Third Front needs to follow. So far, they have believed that a pre-election coalition between them will serve little purpose except to expose the huge fissures that exist between their ambitious leaders. Therefore, they have been content to wait until after the Lok Sabha election to explore the possibility of forming a government.
This strategy must change. The landslide arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on to the Delhi political scene has shown that by creating an explicit alliance (not coalition) and announcing a clear-cut, responsible common programme of action before the election, the Third Front will acquire the power to influence the voters’ choice in its favour in each of the parties’ home states. Therefore, they need to sort out their leadership and policy issues now, well before the election dates are announced.
What should these policies be? To understand that, they need to examine the causes of the Congress’ debacle more closely. It could not be more apparent that whatever has made the voters turn so sharply away from the Congress in these two states has very little to do with the performance of their governments. The anti-incumbency wave must, therefore, arise from deep dissatisfaction with the policies of the Congress at the Centre, i.e. of the UPA government.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi has blamed the price rise for the debacle. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has blamed it upon the weak government at the Centre. The AAP sees it as a reward for its championship of the poor man against a corrupt elite. But the most important cause has, strangely, been left unvoiced. This is the total collapse of the economy in the past four years, and the conviction that it has been brought about by a government that is totally out of touch with India’s reality.
The rejection of the Congress, especially in Delhi, is a protest against the way in which, under the UPA, seven years of relentlessly high interest rates, declining industrial and economic growth, and vanishing jobs has robbed the youth of India of their hopes and dreams for the future and turned it into a lost generation. This is the reason why the protest against the Congress has come almost entirely from first- and second-time voters.
The past four years have seen industrial growth collapse from 14 percent to less than 1 percent. Job growth outside agriculture fell from seven million a year to minus one million a year. In Delhi, Jaipur and dozens of small towns, thousands of factories have shut down, leaving their employees bereft of work and forcing them to go back to their villages.
The youth, who have flocked to them in acute insecurity, see little hope of a better future. That is also why the outer suburbs of Delhi, such as Burari and Mangolpuri, have voted against the Congress. Because, these are where the new migrants seeking jobs go. They have looked into the pot at the end of the rainbow and found not gold, but mud.
The damage has not stopped there. The men who have returned to the villages have taken away the jobs that their wives and daughters were doing. That is why a recent National Sample Survey study showed that 9.1 million women had lost their jobs in the rural areas in the past three years.
Behind the Congress’ debacle, therefore, lies a profound sense of betrayal. The people wanted economic growth, because without this, there would be no new jobs. But the government offered them price stability instead. What is worse, it persisted with industry- killing interest rate policies in the teeth of seven years of evidence that these were having no impact upon the rate of inflation.
Today, the Congress has one small chance left to retrieve its fortunes. Every last businessman has been begging for a reduction of interest rates. Every worker and job seeker knows that without this, industry will continue to contract and another generation of job seekers will be ‘lost’ to the nation. Today, the Indian economy is enjoying a moment of stability after two years of mounting crisis. The current account balance of payment deficit is headed down towards 0 percent or at most 1 percent of the GDP. Foreign exchange reserves are rising; the rupee has stabilised, and the US Federal Reserve has virtually ruled out phasing out its fiscal stimulus until March. If it brings down interest rates sharply, it will kickstart an economic recovery without risking a balance of payments crisis. If industry starts growing once more, it might just make the difference for the Congress not between victory and defeat but between only defeat and defeat followed by disintegration.