Sunday, December 08, 2013

All Bets Are Off For 2014; Both BJP, Cong Have To Reboot

By M H Ahssan | INN Live

ELECTION ANALYSIS  Even as we are mid-way through the election result trends in the four major assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Delhi, the broad trend seems to be thumping wins for the BJP in the first two, a challenging revival of the Congress in Chhattisgarh (though a win can’t be predicted for either party at this time), and a spectacular debut by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, which will probably rob the BJP of a clear majority. 

But some broad conclusions can clearly be drawn from these trends – regardless of what the final seat count numbers are in these four states. First, the pollsters appear to have got it more or less right – even in Chhattisgarh and Delhi, where there was a tight race on. Their predictions are well within the margins of error they had predicted.
Second, the biggest victor is clearly AAP, which has not only gatecrashed the Delhi election scene in one fell swoop, but also established the viability of new parties in politics if they have a strong message of idealism and the ability to channel and organise public support effectively. 

The interesting thing about the AAP is not that it has made waves so quickly after formation—regional parties like Telugu Desam have done that before—but that it is largely an urban party, driven by the middle and lower-middle classes. It heralds the change that urban India is seeking in politics. Third, while it is true that assembly election results cannot be extrapolated to decide how national elections may pan out—both Delhi and Chhattisgarh may vote differently in 2014—what is clear is that the Congress is on a slippery slope. 

It will surely make course corrections and try and pull back, but from now on the momentum is in the other direction. Fourth, the resounding defeat of Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and the close fight in Chhattisgarh indicate that freebies are not a sure way to win elections. Gehlot, in his last year, has been flooding Rajasthan with freebies (food, health, etc). Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh has been widely lauded for his cheap rice scheme. 

Sheila Dikshit's Delhi also announced the launch of the food security scheme before the elections. But barring dirt-poor Chhattisgarh, it seems that using taxpayer money to buy votes is not any more a critical factor in elections. At best, these schemes may accentuate an existing trend. 

Fifth, the Narendra Modi factor will be discussed endlessly, with his critics pointing to what happened in Delhi, and his backers talking about the sweep in Rajasthan and MP, and the creditable performance in Delhi and Chhattisgarh. The reality is somewhere in between. While Chhattisgarh was probably fought totally on local issues, Rajasthan—which adjoins Gujarat—clearly benefited from Modi’s extensive campaigning even though Vasundhara Raje could possibly have won even without Modi. 

What Modi’s campaigning achieved was probably a sharper sweep for the BJP in Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan clearly carried the day, and Modi may not have added much to the tally—though one can’t say that conclusively. In Delhi, if the BJP crosses 30-32 seats, one can say Modi probably prevented AAP from emerging as the biggest party—which it could well have. In  short, Modi made a difference – but it would be fair to say that the local elections could not have been won purely by him. 

In the national elections, though, he may be a bigger factor, and this is what the BJP will be hoping for. Fifth, the AAP victory is also a warning signal to regional parties. Thus far, all commentators have been glibly telling the BJP that in the states where regional parties are strong, the BJP may not be able to make much headway. 

But AAP is an idea, and the regional parties do not necessarily have a better image than the Congress or BJP in their states. If AAP becomes a factor in metros such as Mumbai and many state capitals, one can’t rule out a dent in the regional vote too. The regional parties have only one differentiator from the national parties – being closer to local issues, and being able to choose their own leaders. 

With AAP in the fray, they too will have to rethink their strategy. They can’t afford to make the BJP’s mistake of underestimating the challenge from AAP till just a month before the Delhi election, when they changed their chief ministerial candidate. The BJP now has to reckon not only with the Congress, but also a freshly-minted party (AAP) in the urban areas. 

Even though the Delhi exit polls showed a high overlap between AAP and Modi supporters, given six more months, and the announcement by AAP that it will contest in many more places, the BJP will have to change its messaging if it is to contain the damage from AAP. 

If the anti-incumbency vote is split, one cannot expect the Modi additional vote alone to deliver victory for the BJP/NDA. The Congress has been given a shock, but it now has time to set things right. Four months is enough time to change its message and candidates. And the message clearly cannot be freebies and the Gandhi family. 

It has now nothing to lose by dumping all its old and doubtful candidates and trying new faces with less anti-incumbency problems. The Congress can make a small comeback if the Dynasty takes a back seat and instead allows local leaders to come to the fore, fully empowered. The regional parties will have to take note of the recent election results. 

There are small city-based parties already in existence—like the Loksatta Party in Andhra Pradesh—and it would make sense for them to align with AAP. A state like Andhra Pradesh, which is already in the throes of political crisis due to the Telangana issue, may be just ripe for an interloper like AAP-Loksatta to overturn all conventional logic significantly. 

Most important, while negative campaigning worked for AAP—it had no record to defend—the BJP and regional parties have to make a positive pitch for themselves. The BJP remains the frontrunner, but it will have to rethink its old gameplan of only targeting the Congress with the Modi aura. 

The Modi aura at the national level is unmistakeable, and like AAP, he too will benefit from being an outsider to Delhi, but he can't afford to ignore either the regional parties or AAP. 

In short, all bets are off for 2014.

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