Losers, Winners, Assembly Polls and the Shibboleth of Semi-Finals - The New Indian Express

Losers, Winners, Assembly Polls and the Shibboleth of Semi-Finals

Published: 01st December 2013 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:11 PM

It’s that time when India hosts the Political Formula One—the race of theories and theorists. In a week, spin masters from the Congress and BJP will bloody their nails and knuckles clawing on to illusions and political delusions to explain the mandate of the people in the five-state Assembly polls.

Unlike on the sports field, in politics there are no finals—leave alone semi-finals. There is no such thing as a knock-out and parties are simply in a round robin of contest. Imagine the loser of a semi-final contesting and even winning the final. Clearly, it is too bizarre for consideration. But for reasons not yet fathomed, the five-state Assembly poll has been billed as the political semi-final of 2014.

Typically, the losers will define defeat as a one-off event with no relevance to the future, and the winners will define victory as a semi-final and deploy it for momentum. Truth is that history offers no crutches to lean on—as trends or patterns. If at all there is a pattern across geographies, if there is a certainty, it is the uncertainty of outcomes. Not surprisingly, deciphering and organising a saleable spin is a national obsessive compulsive disorder among parties.

And history is grand and eloquent (data: eci.nic.in and empoweringindia.org). In 1998, in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had swept Delhi, winning six of seven seats. Among the winners was one Lal Bihari Tiwari who defeated a certain Sheila Dikshit. Later in the year, Delhi voted in the Assembly elections. Yes, that was the “onion polls” where Sushma Swaraj was deployed as an individual solution for the institutional disaster that the BJP was. Not even the rousing popularity of Atal Bihari Vajpayee could save the BJP from ignominious defeat. The Congress under Dikshit won 52 of 70 seats while the BJP won 15. A year later, in 1999, India voted again for the 13th Lok Sabha. The BJP won all seven Delhi seats.

November-December of 1998 also saw Assembly elections in Rajasthan and undivided Madhya Pradesh.  How did that “semi-final” pan out for the BJP and Congress? But first a flashback, to the 1998 Lok Sabha polls. In the 1998 Lok Sabha, the BJP won 30 seats in Madhya Pradesh while the Congress won 10. In Rajasthan, the BJP had won only 5 and the Congress won 18. Later in the year, in the Assembly polls, the Congress won 172 seats in MP and 153 seats in Rajasthan—both states delivering a clear majority to the Congress. Cut to 1999 Lok Sabha polls for a reversal: despite the debacle in the Assembly polls, the BJP wins 29 Lok Sabha seats in MP and 16 in Rajasthan.

In both cases, the loser of the “semi-finals” won the finals. Another dose of uncertainty was provided by voters in 1989. It is no secret that V P Singh’s rebellion and the Bofors movement in the Eighties was promoted by leaders from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (along with Haryana) which hosted opposition governments. In 1989, despite the anti-Congress wave and the emergence of a grand alliance to oust Congress at the Centre, the voters of Andhra Pradesh voted the Congress back with 181 seats reducing N T Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam to 74 seats. In Karnataka, voters elected 178 Congress MLAs pushing the Janata siblings out of power. But that didn’t help the Congress from staving off defeat when the nation went to polls. Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 polls.

Similarly, in 1990, the BJP won the Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the Biju Janata Dal won Odisha. In the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, however, the Congress won 27 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 13 seats in Rajasthan and 13 in Odisha (it had more MPs than MLAs). Sure, the 1991 polls were impacted by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. There was, however, no event in 2004 and 2009. In 2003 and 2008, the BJP won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and lost Delhi. But in both 2004 and 2009, the Congress won the Lok Sabha polls.

There is little evidence of a pattern (last week I wrote about the theories of poll outcomes and good governance tnie.in/ 1jwIXg1) nor can any party apportion an approach to development. Assume that in 2013, the Congress wins Rajasthan and the BJP loses Chhattisgarh. Would that be a victory or defeat of entitlement politics? Imagine the Congress loses Delhi where Sheila Dikshit has campaigned on the strength of infrastructure and growth. And the BJP wins Madhya Pradesh where Shivraj Singh Chouhan has similarly campaigned on roads and growth. Would that be a defeat of growth politics?

The necessity of political relevance for long-term demands losers explain defeat and winners the victory. But what explains victory or defeat in a democracy where ideology is conspicuous by its absence, where conviction is mostly a convenience and where elections are often an occasion to vote against rather than for a party!

The reigning morality in any democracy is a numerical majority. Neither national party appears to be in a position to conjure this solo. In five polls since 1996, the Congress and BJP average scores of 153 and 158 in a house of 543. This is as good a time as any for the two parties to discover and articulate what they stand for. So voters know what they are voting for. 


Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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