No real clues for 2009 Lok Sabha Polls

With results of five state assembly polls in, it is time to look ahead to what it might mean for the 2009 national elections.
But first, here is how Bottom Line did with the two states, where it made a firm prediction. In Madhya Pradesh, this column predicted a big win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a tally of 125 to 140 seats in the 230 member assembly and 60 to 75 seats for the Congress party. The actual results turned out to be pretty close with the BJP at 142 and the Congress at 71.
In Delhi, prior to the Mumbai terrorist attacks, this column predicted a close race between the Congress and the BJP with each of them winning between 28 and 38 seats. The results saw the Congress comfortably retaining power by winning 43 seats with the BJP at 22.
My theory is that the Mumbai attacks on the eve of the Delhi polls meant a significant number of upper-income and well-educated voters, who usually don’t vote, ended up doing so to express their outrage against India being targeted. For this group of voters, Congress chief minister Sheila Dikshit has a greater appeal over the decidedly less charismatic V.K. Malhotra. Despite its blatant attempts to benefit from the terror attacks, the BJP couldn’t stop the Congress from gaining more votes on this score.
To me, lessons out of these results are along these lines:
If you deliver, people will vote for you
I think these assembly elections underscore a fundamental shift in the way people vote. The often-used theory that voters routinely go against incumbents wasn’t really in evidence, with the exception of Mizoram, as the momentum was clearly in favour of these incumbents. Wins for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and for the Congress in Delhi, clearly support this shift.
What then explains Rajasthan? The defeat of the ruling BJP actually has less to do with anti-incumbency as much as it has to do with the aloof and arrogant style of functioning of chief minister Vasundhara Raje, which had her party and many ministers in her cabinet quietly up in arms.
People voted for leaders, not parties alone
A key factor in these elections was the image and personal popularity of the chief ministerial candidates, something that I highlighted in this column earlier about how a relatively low-profile chief minister such as the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan has emerged as an extremely popular, people’s chief minister in Madhya Pradesh.
Thus, the victory in Madhya Pradesh is much less a BJP victory and more a mandate for Chouhan. The same goes for Dikshit in Delhi.
The BJP’s tactical mistake, blunder of sorts, in projecting Malhotra as its Delhi chief ministerial candidate also dashed its chances. For a party that ran ads dubbing how a vote for the Congress is costly—Mehengi Padi Congress—its chief ministerial candidate ended up to be the one who proved costly—Mehenga Pada Malhotra.
If you aren’t united, you perish
The BJP’s defeat in Rajasthan and the Congress’ humiliating defeat in Madhya Pradesh also stem from serious infighting.
In Rajasthan, Raje rubbed practically every important leader of the BJP the wrong way, alienated the Sangh Parivar and ran the entire campaign as a personal effort with the party playing second-fiddle. Even though Om Prakash Mathur, BJP’s master organizer who played a major role in the party’s comfortable win in Gujarat last year, was sent to Rajasthan as its state president, Raje ensured that he was completely sidelined.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress was such a badly divided house that all its leaders began pulling the party in multiple directions. They could barely see eye-to-eye and ran their own, individual campaigns.
Don’t sell tickets, pick the best candidates
The BJP’s loss in Rajasthan can also be attributed to its inability to pick suitable candidates with Raje having the last word. Since she trusted nobody, she relied on a polling firm to conduct surveys to choose candidates. Some angry BJP people now claim that this firm “sold” tickets by preparing favourable reports for select applicants. Following the stinging defeat, expect no-holds-barred attacks from BJP loyalists on Raje for mismanaging this election.
Negative campaigns don’t work
The BJP heavily relied on a negative campaign in Delhi while the Congress did the same in BJP-ruled states. Despite its inroads, both the Congress and the BJP should realize now that voters won’t be swayed as easily as in the past with campaigns that don’t include a positive governance agenda.
Inflation and terrorism
It is clear that the twin issues of inflation and terrorism didn’t work against the Congress and that should be a huge relief for the party. Does it mean that these issues won’t matter in Lok Sabha polls either? To me that would be an accurate assessment at this stage as people tend to vote similarly in assembly and parliament polls. And this means that the BJP, which had been hoping to make a comeback nationally by simply pointing to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s failure to manage inflation and combat terror will now have to go back to the drawing board and rethink its strategy.
So, what do these results mean for both Congress and the BJP for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections?
Clearly there is more to cheer for the Congress, which did better than expected. But the results in this set of elections leave both the Congress and the BJP without any clear momentum that they had hoped to get as they gear up for Lok Sabha polls.
For now, we are back to where we were—not knowing what issues will become key to voters and which party will prevail come 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at thebottomline@livemint.com
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