By Swapan Dasgupta
One of the consequences of democracy striking deeper roots is that elections have become less predictable in India. The sheer frequency with which ruling parties at both the Centre and the states have been ousted by quiet expressions of rage has made the political class nervous and more responsive to grassroots opinion. In the normal course this should have ensured that there is greater emphasis by governments on governance and delivery of state services.
Curiously, this has not always been the case. Both the Left Front in West Bengal and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar managed to win successive elections, not on the basis of their track record in governance, but on the strength of their ability to mobilise either class or caste. However, in neighbouring Orissa, the understated Naveen Patnaik has prevailed for four successive elections almost entirely on the strength of his innate decency and the quality of governance. Indeed, in 2009, when he broke with his long-time Bharatiya Janata Party ally, the Biju Janata Dal was able to turn psephology on its head.
The validity of psephology—loosely translated for the purposes of this article as electoral arithmetic—in both planning and forecasting elections has often been questioned. My own experience suggests that politicians, especially those with a mass orientation, are inclined to discount psephology in favour of the ‘chemistry’ of politics.
This ‘chemistry’ is sometimes difficult to fathom. In last year’s Bihar Assembly elections, the BJP was convinced that the arithmetic of the Rahtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United)-Congress alliance would be overturned by the realignment of forces after the 2014 general election. It didn’t happen. The BJP and allies more or less maintained their 2014 vote share but a united opposition was easily able to overwhelm them through the first-past-the-post system. The chemistry in evidence at Prime Minister Modi’s hugely attended rallies failed to defeat the logic of arithmetic.
In the Delhi Assembly election of January 2015, there was a curious combination of both chemistry and psephology. Here the BJP vote slipped significantly from 46.6 per cent in 2014 to 32.19 per cent in 2015. But more significant, a new political party—Aam Aadmi Party—took a sizable chunk of the both the BJP and Congress vote and swept the board by polling a monumental 54.34 per cent of the popular vote.
It is troubling to compare a state Assembly election with a parliamentary poll where national issues dominate and national parties enjoy a bulge. Viewed against the 2013 Assembly poll in Delhi that resulted in a fractured verdict and a short-lived government headed by Arvind Kejriwal, the results seem more confusing. The BJP vote fell nominally from 34.12 per cent in 2013 to 32.19 per cent in 2015. But the real collapse was that of the Congress. Its popular vote slipped from 24.67 per cent in 2013 to 9.70 per cent in 2015. The huge 25 per cent surge in the AAP was, it would seem, a direct consequence of the Congress collapse and the irrelevance of smaller parties and Independent candidates.
Was Delhi, therefore, a triumph of chemistry or psephology? First, there a phenomenal display of voter volatility and the notion of a ‘safe seat’ went through the window. Secondly, it is undeniable that Kejriwal captured the imagination of voters, with AAP polling over 50 per cent of the votes. Finally, the erstwhile dominant party, BJP, held on to its core vote but lost out owing to the de-facto consolidation of all non-BJP votes behind AAP.
Each Assembly poll has its own dynamics and it is hazardous to extend the logic of one to another. Yet, there is a simple psephological logic that is applicable throughout India: unless there is a dramatic change in the chemistry, electoral arithmetic prevails.
West Bengal is one of the prime examples of this—as indeed are Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Before Mamata Banerjee split from the parent party in 1998, the principal opponent of the CPI(M)-led Left Front was the Congress. Before that split, the Congress vote (from 1977) varied between a high of 41.81 per cent in 1987—at the height of Rajiv Gandhi’s popularity—to a low of 35.12 per cent in 1991—when it lost a chunk of its traditional vote to the Ram wave of the BJP. But this vote share—which may have even ensured a majority in fractured Uttar Pradesh—invariably proved inadequate to defeat a united Left Front.
It necessitated a blend of chemistry and psephology in 2011 to oust the Left Front. The Left Front vote fell from 48.41 per cent in 2006 to 39.68 per cent—a decline of 8.73 per cent. In 2006, the Trinammol Congress-BJP alliance had polled 32.30 per cent—a decline of 3.55 per cent from its 2001 performance—and in 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s alliance with the Congress fetched it 48.02 per cent, with the Congress polling 9.09 per cent. Obviously, the chemistry of anti-Left sentiment and the charisma of Mamata played a huge role in effecting this landslide victory.
In the context of the Left Front’s tacit alliance with the Congress in the forthcoming Assembly poll, it is pertinent to assess the independent strength of the Congress and the efficacy of its new alliance. After the TMC split, support for the Congress, fighting independently, varied between 7.98 per cent in 2001 and 14.71 per cent in 2006. In the 2014 election, the Congress polled 9.69 per cent, below the BJP that polled a whopping 17.02 per cent. Much of the Congress support came from the border districts of North Bengal. In the rest of the state it was a fringe player.
If we assume the Congress support to be around nine per cent, the TMC would seem to be under threat. In 2014, against its popular vote of 39.79 per cent, the combined tally of the Left Front and Congress was 39.64 per cent. On paper therefore, both sides seem evenly poised.
However, elections are not determined by simple arithmetic alone. First, while the Left and Congress undoubtedly enjoy an upper hand in North Bengal, Mamata doesn’t seem to under any apparent threat in the rest of the state. Secondly, the ability of the Congress to transfer its vote to the Left—always the adversary, barring a brief spell in 1972 when the CPI allied with Indira Gandhi—is untested. I have little doubt that the Left votes will transfer to Congress candidates but there may not be any reciprocity. Finally, using the 2014 results as a base may prove misleading. Traditionally, the BJP has performed better in Lok Sabha elections than local elections. In 2014, courtesy the national euphoria around Modi, it polled 17.02 per cent and even led in nearly 24 Assembly segments, including Mamata’s own. It is unlikely this is going to be replicated, not least because the local BJP failed to maintain its post-2014 momentum. It may recover ground in the 2019 parliamentary poll but the present election doesn’t seem its take-off point.
In sum, the West Bengal Assembly poll rests on two imponderables. First, will Congress voters transfer their votes to the Left? Secondly, who will BJP voters perceive as their principal enemy? Recall that in 2014, the BJP votes came from all the three groupings. It is hazardous to make election forecasts but history suggests that Bengal’s voters are inclined to give the incumbent a long rope. The Congress won three consecutive terms between 1952 and 1967; and the Left won seven consecutive elections from 1977. The precedent suggests that Mamata still has some more time at the crease.
The Telegraph, March 25, 2016