Elections to state assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi have turned into a sort of referendum on the performance of the chief ministers.
In all these states, the incumbent chief ministers are very popular and, as a result, the election campaigns are strongly focused on their performance. As a result, national leaders of both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have begun to realize that they actually have little role to play in these elections.
Delhi’s two-term chief minister Sheila Dikshit, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia and relatively low-profile chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, respectively, have all acquired a larger-than-life image in their states, making it difficult for opposition parties to easily dislodge them.
This has then given respective ruling parties in all these states an incumbency advantage. Whether all these chief ministers will succeed in their re-election bid will depend on whether they can overcome issues at the constituency level, especially in terms of candidates who don’t have strong track records. But it is increasingly clear to me that the chief ministers have put their parties in a strong position.
Indian voters are increasingly choosing governments not on the basis of party ideology and long-prevailing preferences but on specific party leaders. And this trend has become more obvious with more young people emerging as a major voting bloc. That’s because, in general, party loyalty and party identification among the youth is weaker compared with older Indian voters. Perhaps the youth have realized that it is better to focus on leaders rather than parties as there are good and bad leaders in all parties.
People are craving for leaders who are honest, easily accessible and have a strong, pro-poor and pro-people orientation. Incumbent chief ministers of the latest poll-bound states don’t necessarily have all these qualities. Yet, overall, they have performed remarkably well on these attributes. And, this is what makes it difficult for their challengers.
I am not suggesting that these leaders could win without the backing and cadre of their parties. But they have added an extra element of strength and give an edge to their parties.
That elections in India are increasingly focused on a specific leader is clear from recent electoral victories of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi in Gujarat and B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, all of whom contributed hugely to their party’s victory.
In the past, it was only national leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and some regional icons such as N.T. Rama Rao, M.G. Ramachandran and Devi Lal, who had the magnetic power to win on their sheer personal strength.
Today, a number of chief ministers, such as Naveen Patnaik of Orissa and Nitish Kumar of Bihar, in addition to several in these poll-bound states, have acquired this larger-than-party persona.
What is interesting is that all these chief ministers have emerged mainly due to their pro-development agenda. Most of them have implemented welfare-oriented and populist programmes to woo the electorate. A subsidized rice scheme in Chhattisgarh, financial assistance schemes targeting women as well as rapid strides in basic infrastructure such as roads in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have all been priorities for the respective chief ministers. These smart chief ministers have found a way of potentially overcoming the dreaded anti-incumbency factor so prevalent in Indian elections.
What this suggests is that parties ought to announce leaders in every state, especially those in the opposition, and let these leaders build up a profile. The Congress party is benefiting in Delhi due to the image of Dikshit as an urbane, decent and efficient chief minister. Yet, the party’s dogged refusal to announce its chief ministerial candidates in other states, even where popular leaders are available and willing, is going against the voters’ tendency to choose leaders over parties.
As an aside, given the voter fixation with state issues and chief ministers, national issues have become rather irrelevant in these elections. Terrorism and price rise, which the BJP hoped to raise in these elections in a big way, appear to have failed to take off as these elections have become virtual referenda on the performance of the chief ministers.
If the Congress fares poorly in these elections, it will be mainly due to its inability to challenge the BJP’s popular chief ministers and not necessarily to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s failures in managing the economy or maintaining internal security.
So, even if it fails to win in the BJP-ruled states, this is a message that may bring solace to the Congress leadership and hopes in national elections to the Lok Sabha that are due in 2009.
Also Read G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org