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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Election results: what the 0-4 verdict actually means

New Delhi: The simple verdict of the just concluded elections to four state assemblies is a 4-0 win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or a 0-4 loss for the Indian National Congress.

That, though, is just part of the story.

The story of these elections is as much about the BJP’s victory as it is about the Congress’ decimation and the spectacular debut of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

And while the four states (results to the fifth, Mizoram, are due on Monday) send only 72 representatives to the 543-member Lok Sabha, there are enough pointers in the results not just to trends that will hold sway in the 2014 general elections, but even a rewriting of the entire lexicon of Indian politics.

The obvious message from these elections is about the anti-Congress mood across India. The trend is clearly visible in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, where the party was reduced to an also-ran. Eventually, the Congress ended up with a single-digit seat tally in Delhi and, in Rajasthan, it came perilously close to forfeiting its status as an opposition (anything less than 20 seats or a tenth of the assembly).

While statisticians can split hairs about the relevance of the four states, it cannot be argued that the elections to the four state assemblies were meant to be a dipstick measure of the national mood.

And what they have revealed is that the electorate isn’t angry. It is furious.

So much so that the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Delhi, Ashok Gehlot and Sheila Dikshit, carried, apart from their own crosses, another one arising from the non-performance of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a phenomenon that psephologists have started describing as “double anti-incumbency".

Three of the four states saw direct contests between the Congress and the BJP. In most other states, there are strong regional parties. Indeed, in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, there are two, as there are in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, and now Andhra Pradesh. That lends credence to an opinion that these elections are a prelude to the main contest in April-May 2014, a sort of semi-final.

The near wipe-out of the Congress only improves the odds for the BJP. Even more worrying for the Congress is that its traditional vote banks of Dalits and Muslims have deserted it—as they did in Rajasthan. Yes, Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president, exhibited grace in accepting the verdict of the people, but the party’s morale may be too low for it to climb out of the deep hole it has dug itself into. To be sure, elections can deliver surprises, as they did in 2004 and 2009, but the Congress, in its weakened state, may not be up to the task of doing what needs to be done.

Meanwhile, a BJP wave is now clearly visible. It is yet to assume the tidal proportion of the anti-Congress sentiment, but it is there. There has always been anecdotal evidence of this, but the results provide numerical backing.

The verdict will also strengthen Narendra Modi’s hand and potential allies, especially those on the fence, will now look at the BJP in a new light.

The BJP’s wins in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were inspired by charismatic local leaders.

In Rajasthan, the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia kicked off her campaign seven months back. Her party broke a record set by former chief minister Ashok Gehlot in 1998 (winning 153 seats), and she has, at least for some time to come, silenced her critics within the BJP, some of whom had chosen to target her gender to marginalize her in state politics. In the process, it overwhelmed the incumbent Congress government.

In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s hat-trick of wins—the latest is a new record by his own high standards—will only enhance his status within the party, which is increasingly looking as one where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Was there a Modi wave?

In state elections, where local issues are predominant, it will be next to impossible to understand the influence of Modi, especially given that Raje, Chouhan and Chhattisgarh’s Raman Singh, who managed to cling on to power, are stars in their own right. Still, his presence did contribute in urban constituencies, if the crowds at his rallies, dominated by young people, are any indication. It was most obvious in Rajasthan, giving Scindia an unexpected extra edge that overcame a massive dose of populism from the Gehlot regime.

Similarly in Delhi, it was his intervention that forced order into the chaotic ways of the state unit of the BJP. It led to the installation of Harsh Vardhan as the party’s chief ministerial candidate—but for this, the AAP would have probably run away with the election and turned their debut into a dream.

If there is a stand-out theme to the state elections, it is the emergence of the AAP. In the span of one year, it has evolved from a fledgling to a giant killer. Its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, defeated the incumbent Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit by a margin of almost 25,000 votes.

AAP was the X-factor of this election and remained unpredictable till the end.

Is it scalable?

The party used the grassroots politics platform abandoned by the mainstream parties to script an outcome that just fell short of a majority. Delhi, by its near complete urban status, and by being the epicentre of two rounds of civil unrest—first around an anti-corruption movement and then after the gang rape and murder of a young student last December—provided the ideal circumstances. Not only is this difficult to emulate elsewhere, there is also not much time between now and the general election. But then, only the brave will dare second-guess Kejriwal and his party.

Its singular contribution is the manner in which it has rewritten the rules of politics. Without a balance sheet bankrolled by fat cats or the organizational infrastructure of large parties such as the BJP and the Congress, it has turned in a superlative performance and established its disruptive power. There is no doubt that its presence in the fray served as a force-multiplier and triggered the collapse of the Congress. Indeed, the party targeted the demography at the bottom of the pyramid and the lower middle class, both of which were at one time the domain of the Congress.

Kejriwal and his band of merry men and women engaged the electorate in a manner that gave the latter ownership of the agenda—creating 70 manifestos being one such example. They have done better than Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian who inspired the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) that shook the foundations of Italian politics. In the national election held in February, Grillo’s party ended up with 25.5% of the vote—signalling, for the first time, a third alternative in Italian politics. Only time can tell whether this regional model can be scaled up; of course if the organized parties do adapt and shed their current approach, the AAP’s national task will become that much more difficult.

However, the clarity of the electoral verdict masks some underlying trends that may come to play in 2014’s general election. Growing inequality is one. India has materially traded up as Census 2011 revealed, and has succeeded in reducing poverty—but this is largely on account of the entitlement regime and any withdrawal could see a rise in the number of the poor. AAP’s success shows that the issue is alive. Ironically, it was Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who stressed this during the party’s campaign across the four states, but his message, and the fact that it came under the aegis of the Congress, didn’t fire the imagination of the electorate.

Aspiration is another.

While India is adding about 12 million to the labour force every year, it is able to absorb just a fraction of the young people who enter the workforce. Young people are very aware of this—thanks to the media. Only more granular data will reveal the voting patterns of the first-time voters. They, aggregating 149.36 million nationally, had a significant presence in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. While they are not a voting bloc, they can be critical in a close contest.

In conclusion, the first round has gone to the BJP. Going forward, Modi, who so far has been content with fielding a general narrative around aspirations, will have to unveil more specifics—especially his plan for generating jobs.

For the Congress, it is time to get back to the drawing board. There are some analysts who believe the party should look beyond the Gandhis and, in time, it could, but for 2014, it isn’t clear whether the party can do without either the political sense of Sonia Gandhi or the promise that Rahul Gandhi held out in 2009.

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