And the Futile Search for a Grand Narrative
Much has already been said about the rather unexpected UP election results. The Samajwadi Party (SP) has romped to a comprehensive victory leaving the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) far behind. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has continued its slide in UP while the media cheerleaders of the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi are surprised that the party has not performed as well as they thought. Naturally, Akhilesh Yadav is the new flavor of the season while Rahul Gandhi is now, suddenly, the failed prince.
Tempting as it is to search for a grand narrative—the UP electorate has voted for development or for the politics of empowerment—a closer analysis would suggest that the results merely have affirmed the 2007 elections. SP and BSP are now the principal adversaries in the Hindi heartland with BJP and Congress fighting for the wooden spoon. In short, nothing has really changed.
In a first-past-the-post system with multi cornered contests, looking solely at the number of seats scored by individual parties is likely to yield distorted findings. What may be more useful is to examine the respective vote shares of individual parties. Despite its huge victory, the SP has failed to touch even 30% while despite the shellacking it took, the BSP vote share remains at a highly respectable 26%. If anything, it is the congress which has shown signs of improvement by increasing its vote share to 11% from 8% in 2007. It is not much of an improvement but at least it is moving in the right direction unlike BJP which has seen continuous fall in its vote share over the last decade.
The likes of Yogendra Yadav are much better placed to figure out which caste combination has voted for which party but what remains true is the societies don’t change in 5 years. Or 10 for that matter. Yes, the hindi heartland is changing slowly and surely ‘development’ with its very specific heartland connotation has arrived in the popular consciousness. A voter in Bihar and UP may have voted largely on the basis of caste a decade back but now she expects the government to maintain law & order and deliver some goodies as well. This is exactly where Nitish Kumar has scored in Bihar. But even in Bihar, as Retributions wrote after the 2010 assembly elections, the JD(U)-BJP alliance won only 40% vote share. Or to put it another way, even a the height of his popularity when he was being hailed as a transformational leader in Delhi studios, 60% of Bihar’s population voted against Nitish Kumar. Once again, societies don’t fundamentally transform in a matter of years. Indeed, if the recent brazen acts of violence in UP are any indication, even parties and their supporters can’t change drastically in a short period of time.
But what ails the national parties in UP? Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s argues:
The implications of elections are not cast in stone; they depend on the lessons parties draw from them. But both national parties have to do a lot of rethink. It is often argued that national parties are giving way to regional agendas. The truth is the opposite. National parties are giving way because they don’t have a national agenda; it is the regional parties that have become the carriers of a future dream. Their organisational bases are fragile and their political imaginations ossified.
Dr. Mehta makes an important point. Both Congress and BJP had no overarching theme in UP—they were merely competing in the promised distribution of goodies with the regional parties. Naturally, the votes are likely to trust those who have the organization on the ground and whose leaders are locally accessible and not occassionaly airdropped from Delhi.
The lack of a national vision is not fatal in it self if it can be supplemented by strong local leadership. Congress, of course, cannot encourage regional leaders lest they challenge the ruling family while the BJP has been so comprehensively decimated in UP that it was forced to import an Uma Bharti from Madhya Pradesh. Little wonder, then, the two national parties have fared so poorly in UP.
Finally, little should be read in the results of other state elections. Goa and Uttarakhand are minor prizes while Punjab has merely affirmed the UPA model at the state level: Massive corruption and maladministration can be still be offset by populism and an opposition which is bitterly divided and too hubristic to even bother fighting the election.
(In the next part, the national implications of the UP results)