Since there is a large section of the editorial class, at least those who are voluble and visible, whose social and political attitudes were moulded by a blend of the US campuses and liberal Manhattan, an American example should suffice to drive home a point. If a set of local poll results—say for city councils—were compared with the outcome of the presidential election in the same area, the juxtaposition would be greeted with a large measure of derision. The reason is quite obvious: politics become more fractious and less prone to aggregation as we descend the ladder of representative democracy.
This is as true for India as it is for the US. In Lok Sabha elections, where the constituencies are mammoth, local issues play less of a role and ‘national’ parties enjoy a degree of advantage, even if they lack local organisational structures. The reason why both Lok Sabha and even Assembly elections are becoming increasingly ‘presidential’ in character has to do with the size of individual constituencies. The need for a larger appeal becomes far less in elections to village panchayats and municipal boards. This explains why the number of candidates, particularly independent candidates, proliferates in the lower rungs of competitive politics.
This elementary observation need not have been reiterated had it not been for the fact that in the past week some newspapers and TV channels have thought it fit to compare the results of the municipal polls in Rajasthan with the outcome of the Lok Sabha election of 2014. The purpose was obvious: to show that the BJP was on a steep southward slide and that it was only a matter of time before the Congress regained its lost primacy.
As an assertion of faith in the Gandhi-led outfit, this is a legitimate exercise but as an exercise in psephological analysis, the comparison is deeply flawed. What the results of the municipal polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh show is that the overall primacy of the BJP in these two states is relatively unimpaired. But more to the point, they suggest that the Congress (and, for that matter, the media) was wrong in believing that the shadow of the disruption in Parliament would be felt in the localities and influence voting behaviour.
The results indicate that the BJP is better organised at the grassroots than the Congress. Organisation doesn’t matter all that much when there is a fierce political gale blowing. It is of significance when there are few overriding issues that distract from local concerns. The results in MP and Rajasthan clearly indicate that what the media deems are issues of paramount importance, are not regarded as such in the localities. This is an important corrective that, hopefully, will be noted by those who have begun writing their political obituaries of the Narendra Modi government.
This impression of the electorate’s ability to disregard media-generated storms is further bolstered by the India Today-Cicero State of the Nation Poll published last week. This is an important opinion poll that, curiously, was remarkably underplayed—not least because its findings didn’t generate the sensational headlines the editorial class hoped for. The opinion poll indicates that popular voting preferences haven’t changed in any meaningful way since the summer of 2014 and that, in all likelihood, the NDA would be re-elected in the event of a snap poll. Modi’s personal popularity, the poll shows, has been unaffected by the storms in Parliament and the studios.
Of course, any mid-course opinion poll is at best indicative. Campaigning plays a huge role in determining the final voter preference. In the previous Delhi election, the initial advantage enjoyed by the BJP was decisively nullified by a combination of the AAP’s energetic campaigning and tactical voting by the minorities. Under the circumstances, the BJP would be foolish to gloat over the polls or even extrapolate its findings to Bihar.
The two sets of local elections and the opinion poll read together acquire relevance only if the appropriate conclusions are drawn. The first conclusion is that voters, unlike media pundits, don’t take snap decisions. Not being enamoured of political turbulence, the electorate is inclined to give governments a long and patient hearing. The Congress, it would seem, has been rash to undertake an all-out war at a time when the electorate believes the Modi government is work in progress.
Secondly, the opinion poll suggests that there are certain pressing concerns which, if left unaddressed, could signal danger for the Modi government. The most important of these is the economy. Although there has been no downslide, the optimism of a dramatic turnaround that greeted Modi’s election in May 2014 has dissipated. It hasn’t turned into discontent because there has been no all-round price rise—the recent hike in the price of onions being a possible exception. However, since the government was elected on the promise of ushering better days, the expectations from Modi are far more exacting. In other words, the government has to be mindful that unless its economic initiatives — most notably job and wealth creation— start showing results on the ground, it could become a casualty of its own rhetoric.
However, all that is in the future. As the two sides of the political divide approach the Bihar elections, the indications are that the outcome will be decided on the strength of local issues, local perceptions and local campaigning. At the national level, India is enjoying a period of calm—something you would never have guessed by switching on the TV.