With the recent assembly elections having delivered mixed results to the key contenders for power at the Centre, namely the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the spotlight has turned to the Lok Sabha elections due next year.
As someone who has watched the trends in Indian electoral behaviour closely, in the run-up to the assembly polls, much before these trends became apparent, I highlighted the rising importance of the ‘leadership factor’ quite early in this column (17 November) and foretold how a strong pro-incumbency trend fuelled by a good development track record was helping state governments (29 September).
What issues are likely to dominate the Lok Sabha polls? As this question keeps political parties engaged, let me make an attempt to list key issues that would matter the most.
This was the most important factor that weighed on voters’ minds in the just-concluded assembly elections. Increasingly, people are not voting for parties alone, but are voting for their leaders. Success of the Congress in Delhi and that of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh owes a great deal to Sheila Dikshit and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, respectively.
With elections becoming “leader”-centric, can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also turn in a similar performance? This would depend much on how the electorate views him as PM. At one level, people appreciate Singh for his honesty, integrity and simplicity, but at another level, he is regarded as a PM who lacks political authority. To his credit, Singh showed remarkable grit and determination in pushing the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
Whether the leadership of the Congress likes it or not, as Prime Minister, Singh will be an election issue, particularly among the educated, urban voters, and the young, who are a major voting block today. Will the humble, soft-spoken Singh appeal to the electorate? This is a key issue that would decide the Congress party’s fortunes in the Lok Sabha polls.
Also Read G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
Another key factor on the voters’ agenda is the development track record of governments. What does the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have to show as its achievements? What would one instantly recall of development work undertaken during the five years of Singh’s tenure? For development to give electoral rewards, it has to be visible and must be associated with the government in question. The Bharat Nirman initiatives of the UPA in sectors such as irrigation, telecommunications, rural electricity, housing and water supply have not made visible impact.
The successful flagship programme of the UPA—the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—is not seen as its initiative by the electorate because it failed to brand the programme as its own.
Nuclear deal and loan waiver package
The UPA government can be expected to highlight its success in clinching the nuclear deal and in initiating the largest ever loan waiver package for farmers. The nuclear deal is a non-issue for the electorate, but undoubtedly, it has enhanced the stature of the PM, particularly among some sections that regarded him as lacking in political authority.
The waiver has helped many farmers, but this has also caused resentment among many small and marginal farmers who did not benefit. You can expect the twin themes to dominate the UPA government’s advertising campaigns, but they are unlikely to add much to its campaign success.
Inflation and terrorism
The twin issues of inflation and terrorism have not mattered much in the recently concluded assembly polls as state-level factors became dominant themes. As economic and physical security are of paramount importance to people, it would be wrong to conclude that these issues are no longer important to the electorate.
The key question to ask is whether people regard the BJP as a better alternative in managing prices and terrorism. From the assembly polls, it is apparent that the state leadership of the BJP did not inspire any such confidence. If the BJP’s national campaign succeeds in inspiring such confidence, it could help the BJP immensely. Else, the twin themes may dominate campaigns of both the Congress and the BJP, but may fail to work for the main protagonists.
National vs state factors
There are occasions when the Lok Sabha election results turn out to be a mere aggregate of state-level results, influenced by local factors. This was particularly the case in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
If national factors dominate, you could expect the Congress or the BJP to emerge much stronger after the Lok Sabha polls, leading to the formation of a stable coalition government. However, if state-level issues were to sway voters, we may be headed for a period of political instability.
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