With no level-playing field, elections are a mismatch - Hindustan Times
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With no level-playing field, elections are a mismatch

Dec 14, 2023 10:00 PM IST

The elections are a mismatch, a bit like an India versus Bangladesh cricket game, where more often than not there will be only one winner.

In electoral politics, “jo jeeta woh sikandar” (whoever wins is king). Six months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “double engine” pitch was called into question after the party was voted out in Karnataka on the back of a defeat in Himachal Pradesh. Now, after the thumping win in Madhya Pradesh, an upbeat Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has spoken of how the BJP has succeeded in creating a “pro-incumbency” wave unlike its rivals. In an assembly election cycle in which the ruling government was voted out in four of the five states and more than 50% of the sitting MLAs lost, the PM has reason to claim that the BJP alone has been able to push back on “anti-incumbency”.

The BJP has the clear advantage of the Modi factor in the last decade. (Arun Sharma/HT)
The BJP has the clear advantage of the Modi factor in the last decade. (Arun Sharma/HT)

Historically too, PM Modi has statistics on his side. Since 1991, only seven of 40 state Congress governments or 18% have been re-elected in major states with more than 10 parliamentary seats; by contrast, 22 of 39 BJP governments or 56% have been re-elected. So, what does the BJP do right that the Congress doesn’t in combating anti-incumbency?

First, the BJP has the clear advantage of the Modi factor in the last decade. Not since Indira Gandhi in her pomp has a larger than life leader with a pan-Indian appeal been able to draw on personal charisma to lift a party’s fortunes in state elections, especially in north and west India. The “Modi ki guarantee” catch-line symbolises a sense of trust and credibility that the leader has built with the average voter. This, to a large extent, has offset local anti-incumbency.

Second, the concept of a voter as a “labharthi” or beneficiary of central government largesse has redefined the rules of the game. With access to lists of beneficiaries of government schemes, the BJP has been able to create a vote bank that cuts across traditional identity politics. This data mining may have implications for privacy rights but is being strategically used by the BJP to build a rock-solid base via efficient delivery systems to an increasingly transactional voter.

Third, despite the overarching Modi personality cult, the BJP has succeeded in infusing a certain dynamism in their state leadership through smart if not ruthless politics. The manner in which the party has chosen new chief ministerial faces across the heartland states is proof of a risk-taking appetite and a constant disruptive churn within.

The choices may be dictated by an imperious high command, but there is a method in the culling of the old guard and rise of relatively unknown figures. Not every experiment has succeeded but the emergence of powerful chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma has been a force multiplier.

By contrast, the Congress high command culture dating back to the Indira Gandhi era never allowed regional satraps to assert their identity. The late Tarun Gogoi and YS Rajashekhar Reddy are the only Congress leaders from major states in the last two decades to enjoy relative autonomy and win repeat terms. Moreover, a diminishing political authority of the Congress’s central leadership has affected internal conflict resolution mechanisms. The failure of the Congress to resolve the Ashok Gehlot vs Sachin Pilot power struggle in Rajasthan and even the Bhupesh Baghel vs TS Singh Deo battle in Chhattisgarh, both of which cost the party dearly, is a sign of the times.

Fourth, a key factor in offsetting anti-incumbency is organisational depth, access to unlimited resources and ideological clarity. The electoral bonds-rich BJP election “machine” succeeded in winning what once seemed a challenging election in Madhya Pradesh because it has a large pool of “karyakartas” to draw from at the booth level. These volunteers are ideologically motivated by a sense of saffron brotherhood but are also now digitally allied by a round-the-clock social media outreach that ensures continuous engagement. It is with this gigantic Hindutva army of enthusiastic workers that the Bharatiya Janata Party is able to micro-manage an election by building a crucial last-mile connect with the voters. Some regional parties too have a similar vast cadre base, one reason why the BJP finds it more difficult to defeat well-entrenched regional forces.

A cash-strapped Congress finds it tough to combat the BJP’s fine-tuned election engine because it just doesn’t have a parallel structure, especially in the Hindi heartland, to match the BJP’s ground-level mobilisation. The days when elections could be won by leaders making a guest appearance only in the final stretch of campaigning are well and truly over. Perpetual interaction with voters — either through WhatsApp groups or well-choreographed events — is now a crucial aspect of electioneering. Notice the number of video conferences PM Modi holds with BJP booth committee members and contrast it with the Congress’s lack of sustained organisational communication.

Finally, the Modi government has used institutional clout at the Centre to actively promote its political interests in BJP-ruled states while targeting Opposition-ruled states in defiance of any spirit of “cooperative federalism”. The selective approach of central enforcement agencies, which are hyper-active in states with non-BJP governments while being dormant in BJP-governed states is an example of this: Note how just before the assembly elections, Congress-ruled governments in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh found themselves under the Enforcement Directorate lens.

Not to forget the rank misuse of Raj Bhavans against Opposition governments or brazen attempts at “Operation Lotus” to undermine elected non-BJP governments. Expectedly, the elections are a mismatch, a bit like an India versus Bangladesh cricket game, where more often than not there will be only one winner.

Postscript: When our exit poll revealed that Congress was heading for a big defeat in Madhya Pradesh, a senior Congress leader rang up to protest: “You are totally off the mark, I can guarantee a minimum of 130 seats!” Overconfidence or naivete, the Congress needs an urgent reality check.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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