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Key takeaways from the 2014 general election

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-05-2014 Manoj Pant

By the time this article goes to print, election 2014 will be history and the results of exit polls will be known. However, I am going to stick my neck out and argue that while election surveys have been known to be wrong, the qualitative trends are never completely negated. The two messages I will address are: what went wrong for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and was there a wave in favour of Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

A qualitative inspection of the various surveys clearly shows that the Congress may well suffer its worst defeat in many decades. Why is this so? Analysts seem to argue that this is due to corruption—scams like 2G, coal, Commonwealth Games, etc. However, surveys of voting preferences do not support this. The reason is that it is not high-level corruption (defence, coal, etc.) that worries voters. It is the grassroots corruption (day-to-day administrative issues) that disrupts an average man’s life which really matters. This is what led to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, the response to Anna Hazare two years back and the spontaneous rallies following the brutal December 2012 gangrape and murder in the Capital. It is the failure of the Shiela Dikshit government to project administrative changes in Delhi, which explains her amazing loss rather than the mega scams. It is often forgotten that the BJP vote percentage in the Delhi assembly elections last year actually fell compared with 2008 but the Congress lost huge percentages to the AAP and emerged a poor third.

It seems obvious that internal problems in the Congress (the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh issue) and the related indecisiveness in governance has cost the party dearly. This showed up in the spate of clearly election-related pronouncements starting just about six months or so before the elections. The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the reservation for Jats, Jains and backward caste Muslims were all perceived as poll-related sops. But as past elections show, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Whatever be the actual intentions, the electorate seems no longer to believe in Congress promises.

So did the “corruption” issue work for the AAP? It did last year. But in the most recent phase of electioneering it would seem that AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was mainly concerned about the Ambanis and Adani: crony capitalism is bad but targeting that does not win elections unless it can be shown to impact a voter’s daily life. The lack of focus of the AAP was expected when it incorporated known members of Left activism, the Lohiaites and prosperous businessmen in its core group. This led to a meaningless manifesto while the political principles necessary in selecting electoral candidates seemed unknown. What was expected of AAP was a new beginning with “clean” candidates and the promise of ending day-to-day corruption. Yet, it is still not too late and regrouping around five to 10 MPs and a course correction seem to be on the cards.

The real story is not the emergence of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) but the margin of victory it is expected to post. If the surveys are any indication, the NDA is unlikely to need any major regional party to form the government at the Centre. This would be the first time since 1989 that any single pre-poll alliance would have obtained even close to a majority. What explains this? Four factors seem important. First, Modi has successfully targeted the youth with the promise of jobs: remember, about 120 million of the 814 million voters are in the crucial age group of 18-25. This “aspirational” youth in both rural and urban areas has been investing in expensive education and now has nowhere to go. He thus brings development to the forefront and, with the performance of Gujarat (good but not the best), projects himself as the only one who can deliver this development, thus removing issues like reservation, caste, etc., from the main discourse. Second, by successfully establishing allies in the North-East and the South, the BJP has ensured a foothold in areas where it has never had a presence while at the same time other small allies elsewhere ensure it does not lose due to a split in anti-UPA votes. Finally, by never answering any charge of being anti-Muslim, Modi has ensured this does not become a major debating item with other national leaders: it takes two to debate.

If the results of the surveys are validated, the rise of the NDA will reflect better organization, internal unity and media management rather than the anti-UPA “wave” that many analysts seem to talk about. In the same way, the decline of the UPA (read Congress) is mainly due to poor organization, arrogance, political centrism and poor handling of perceptions. Here too, some radical organizational overhaul is needed.

Manoj Pant is a professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This column was written before results of the exit polls were released on Monday.

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