This year saw political developments that are likely to have a major impact in the future. There were many lessons for politicians to learn.
Public servants, not leaders
The 26/11 Mumbai terror attack saw the urban elite and middle classes rise in anger against the political class. For the first time, we saw a section of society that waxes eloquent about various issues, but does not even bother to vote, talking about the lack of accountability among politicians. It was a defining moment as the protests saw the Union home minister, a state chief minister and his deputy being eased out for ineffectiveness and insensitivity.
The message for the political class is: Don’t be insensitive and outright stupid; don’t stretch people’s patience.
Incumbent governments have become electoral favourites. This represents a seminal shift in Indian politics. Out of four states that went to the polls recently—Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—incumbent governments secured large victories in three states. The exception was Rajasthan, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost because of an arrogant chief minister who alienated senior party leaders, which led to rampant infighting.
There is a catch, though. The popular mood is in favour of governments performing well. Has the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition performed well enough to merit reelection at the Centre? That is a question that will decide the outcome of national elections next year.
The old dictum that parties lose elections even if their governments perform is passé. The new mantra is performance pays.
Negativism doesn’t work
The electorate responds to positive campaigns. In Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, the incumbent governments focused on positive themes such as economic development and ignored issues such as terrorism and inflation. Both were voted back to power. In both states, the opposition ran excessively negative campaigns and lost miserably.
The lesson: In these times of negativism, people are looking for positive reassurances; spreading panic and running down rivals diminishes your appeal.
Also Read G.V.L Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
The tendency of voters to choose parties on the basis of their leaders has become more pronounced. The emphatic victory of the Congress in Delhi and the BJP in Madhya Pradesh is largely on account of the personal appeal of chief ministers Sheila Dikshit and Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
The lesson: people are not willing to trust parties alone; they want credible leaders.
Trading tickets for money
Politics is increasingly becoming a game of the rich. If you have the money, you can buy party tickets. The year saw influential politicians allege that their parties sell election tickets. As political leaders turn brokers and sellers, the highest bidders win tickets and party faithfuls are left in the lurch. The result is an electoral catastrophe as such candidates usually lack local support to win elections.
The lesson: Money alone cannot win elections and parties can ignore strong candidates only at their peril.
Friends become foes and foes can become friends
Earlier this year, the stand-off between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the UPA’s Left allies over the Indo-US nuclear deal led to their bitter separation. This forced the Congress party to seek the support of the Samajwadi Party (SP), despite the Gandhi family’s known aversion to SP leader Amar Singh, to ensure the UPA government’s survival.
At the height of the confrontation, Left parties were seen cozying up to their ideological rival, the BJP, and were even willing to consider a Left-BJP supported alternative.
The political mantra in the present era of coalition politics is simple: Maintain cordial relations with all, across even ideological barriers.
Ends are important, not the means
This is a negative political lesson from 2008. After the withdrawal of support by the Left parties, it was obvious that the UPA government did not have the numbers to survive in office. To win the trust vote and stay on in power, the UPA engineered defections and cross-voting by members of Parliament from opposition parties by offering allurements.
The BJP did something similar in Karnataka. Falling just short of a majority, in the 224-member Assembly, the BJP encouraged defections from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) by making them ministers and offering other sops.
The lesson for political leaders—which they are already practicing unabashedly—is that in politics only ends matter and what means you adopt to achieve them is unimportant.
With Lok Sabha elections due soon, political parties will benefit if they grasp these lessons.
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