The Indian voter is incredibly intelligent. Just when you believe you’ve hacked into his mind and can manipulate him/her at whim, you get yorked by a googly (the inconsistent cricketing metaphor is deliberate, to prove you cannot take the Indian voter for granted).
Everybody thought that the BJP+allies would annihilate the Opposition in the Maharashtra and Haryana assemblies. Incumbents, pundits and pollsters were united in their chorus — 225+ in Maharashtra and 75+ in Haryana, an astonishing four/fifth majority in both elections.
But the actual numbers produced a stunning refutation. Down by over 10 percent versus the 2014 state polls, and a breathtaking 25-50 percent over the 2019 parliament election exactly five months ago. Worse (or better, if you are viewing it from the Opposition’s prism), a few of the ‘invincibles’ were humbled on their turf —Modi/Shah in Gujarat, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, MK Stalin in TN, and Sukhbir Badal in Punjab.
I know that adjectives like ‘milestone’, ‘game changer’, and ‘watershed’ are frequently used after contrarian polls. But even adjusting for this caveat, I would call this week’s edition a ‘juggernaut-stopper’. Here are my six takeaways.
1. The ‘Modi Delta’ is a Fantastic 12, Perhaps Even 15, Percentage Points!
We’ve all grappled with a consistently unusual phenomenon — the BJP scores a considerably higher vote share when Prime Minister Modi is on the ballot (ie, when the voter is seeking to give him a direct mandate), which falls away dramatically when he is canvassing for votes for his party in state elections.
I had mistakenly estimated this ‘Modi Delta’ at five+ percentage points during his first stint, thereby making a huge error about his victory in 2019. I was giving him a national vote share of 32 percent, while he ended up closer to 38 percent in May 2019. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, and collating the differential between the past two Lok Sabha polls and 14 assembly elections (including Maharashtra and Haryana in 2014 and the week gone by), the ‘Modi Delta’ is closer to 12, perhaps even 15, percentage points.
That is, if the BJP gets 35 percent in a state poll, it could score close to 47-50 percent in a national election where Prime Minister Modi is on the ballot.
This almost-predictable dichotomy is unprecedented in any electoral democracy.
2. Congress’s Defeatism is Misplaced
The surprise bounce by the Congress+allies across the country must convince the grand old party that its post-2019 defeatism is utterly unwarranted. Its 20 percent national vote share is a ‘healthy minima’ on which it can build a strategy of political revival.
It enjoys a natural resonance with an electorate which is looking for an alternative, especially among the disenfranchised/poor in vast spaces of north, west and central India. While two consecutive defeats can and do happen to almost every large political party across the globe, that is often also the moment of revival, provided you throw the gauntlet and not the towel. Of course, this also means that regional titans — whether an Amarinder Singh or Ashok Gehlot or Kamalnath or Bhupinder Hooda or ally Sharad Pawar — are empowered, without being fettered by the ‘Delhi leadership’.
3. Changing Political Impact of the MLAs’ Count
Often, we look at a party’s count in the Lok Sabha to measure its strength. But a far more elemental metric is the number of MLAs in the kitty. Remember, an MP, at an average, represents over 2 million citizens, while an MLA is accountable to about a tenth, that is, 200,000, people. Therefore, an MLA’s clout with his constituents is far more intimate and forceful.
The UPA+opposition parties have been adding to their arsenal of MLAs with ever-increasing velocity over the last twelve months, especially after the Punjab, Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Maharashtra, Haryana and other bypolls. At a rough count, this could be about 200+ MLAs, or an accretion of over 25 percent, to their earlier numerical strength.
This gives the non-NDA parties a solid base on which to reconstruct their political fortunes.
4. Cultural Nationalism/Jingoism is Dwindling Across the Political Space
Curiously, both the ruling and opposition parties must now dial down on cultural nationalism and/or the politics of hate/polarisation. Clearly, neither the Balakot strikes nor the jingoistic appeal of killing Article 370 — or indeed the graphic threat of ‘chucking illegal immigrants’ into the Bay of Bengal — moved the needle with an electorate obsessed with unemployment and dwindling economic prospects.
So, any narrative based on these political issues is a lose-lose proposition in non-national elections. If the rulers harp on these themes, they look remote and dodgy. And if the Opposition tries to counter them, it risks ratcheting up emotions and distracting from bread-and-butter issues.
Hence, the time has come for both sides to eschew divisive politics. It’s now time to focus on the economy, stupid!
5. Turncoats Can’t Fool all the Voters all the Time
Guess who were the real political mascots of last week’s polls? No, not Devendra Fadnavis or Manohar Lal Khattar. But three relatively nondescript local politicos called Udayanraje Bhosale (ex-MP, NCP), Alpesh Thakor (ex-MLA, Gujarat Congress), Dhavalsinh Zala (ex-MLA, Gujarat Congress) and a clutch of other turncoats who jumped ship to either the BJP or Shiv Sena, hoping to ride the curry train. But a wise electorate stopped them dead in their tracks.
Udayanraje’s case study is compelling. He had swum against the Modi tsunami to win, with Sharad Pawar’s blessings, from Satara in Maharashtra in May 2019.
But he shocked his mentor when he quit within four months and cartwheeled on to the BJP bandwagon, arrogantly confident of getting re-elected. Whack, the Satara electorate handed him a crushing 85k-defeat for back-stabbing his mentor. Quite a similar fate befell M/s Thakor and Zala in Gujarat, for cruising on the rural Congress wave in 2018, only to abandon it for the party they had cursed vehemently. Once again, the sensitive Gujarati voter handed them a stinging comeuppance!
6. Jail Means Instant Political Stardom
Finally, the Modi government must recall the folly of the Shah Commission in 1977/78, which almost single-handedly resurrected a hopelessly defeated Indira Gandhi’s political career. Right or wrong, our electorate is feudal and sentimental about strong/son-of-the-soil politicians. And if it senses that they are being hounded ‘unfairly’, or being punished ‘selectively’, their sympathy hormones begin to work overtime.
Just see what happened to Sharad Pawar after he was booked by the Enforcement Directorate days before the Marathas voted; Pawar’s political stature swelled in might. In Haryana, the dogged Hooda, who was seen fending off a concerted attack from several central ‘agencies’, acquired the halo of a ‘true Jat’, one who fearlessly takes on his tormentors.
I suspect something similar could happen when a ‘jail rejuvenated’ DK Shivakumar throws himself into the Battle of Karnataka, where 15 crucial by-elections will decide the fate of the BJP government in less than six weeks from now.
The lesson is clear: an overuse of the ‘agencies’ is a double-edged, often losing, endeavor. Rein ‘em in.