City City Bang Bang, Columns, Writing

The magic mirror called election results

Rahul Gandhi’s take on the election results was revealing-he felt that the problem lay in the absence of a strong grassroots network which did not convert positive intention into delivered votes while Sonia Gandhi complained of there being too many leaders on the ground. In both cases, what is interesting is that the analysis is in effect a reiteration of a worldview that is pre-existing. What is in effect being said is that the top-down approach of the Congress works just fine; the only hitch is that there is no one at the bottom to utilise that advantage. When it is said that there are too many leaders, the subtext is that the party has all the leaders it needs in the members of the family; what it lacks are committed followers who are able to convert charisma into votes.

Of course, these results could have been used to make exactly the opposite point- that the Congress lacks enough credible leaders at the local level, and needs to create strong regional personalities. Voters in UP, one could argue, using the same data, do not need a puppet leader responding to orders delivered through a remote control; they need a robust alternative to Mayawati and Mulayam.

One would imagine that there is nothing more real or sobering than election results for nothing makes reality more naked than hard cold numbers. And yet, because it is so difficult to disaggregate election results and tease out different strands of influences at work, what tends to happen is that the results serve to reinforce existing positions rather than act as a wake-up call for the parties in question.

For instance, one could use the current results to contend that identity politics has finally run its course and that the voter is now seeking real governance. In spite of attempts to garner the Muslim vote, it appears that there is no longer any such vote bank that transfers its vote en bloc to a single party. As an election plank, most agree that Hindutva is dead, and it is argued that caste too is beginning to play an ever diminishing role in the electoral outcome. Of course, the opposite too can and has been inferred from the same results. Only those parties with a core constituency have any hope of winning power; the incremental votes can come from considerations other than identity but without a large dependable voter base, the task of collecting votes from different constituencies might prove to be unviable. The performance of the national parties that do not have this base seems to bear out this contention, particularly when we speak of state elections. Following through with this argument, it could be said that if anything, it is the national parties that will strive harder to find voting blocs using identity as a plank while the regional parties, sitting pretty on established bases will find it profitable to contest on a plank of better governance. Again the flailing attempts by the Congress to shore up the minority vote might well be evidence of this.

Even when it comes to much ballyhooed need for youth and freshness, as pointed to by Akhilesh Yadav’s triumphant performance it is far from clear as to what role it played in the choice of voters. The need to build a larger narrative that explains the current outcome in popular terms leads to an overprivileging of the role played by individuals. If the need for youth was so paramount then surely Priyanka’s unmistakable charisma that has been so widely commented upon and Rahul’s toil in UP should have paid dividends. It is also interesting how muted the reaction to Akhilesh’s coronation has been; his visibility and presumed effectiveness during the election campaign has given him an air of legitimacy that Rahul Gandhi seems to lack. The need to see his elevation as assign of hope ensures that we interpret his coming positively rather than ask angst-ridden questions about the perpetuation of political dynasties.

At the most basic level, it is possible to challenge even the overall understanding we have about who won and who lost. In terms of vote shares, the Congress gained as much as the SP, which means that as a proportion of their existing vote share, it is the Congress that recorded the greatest gains. If we were to, for the sake of simplicity, argue that choice of voters translated most directly into vote share, and that the number of seats won is a circumstantial outcome, mediated by many other variables, then one could actually make the case that the Congress has not fared badly at all; it has just not done well enough to make it count.

That is not to argue that no meaningful and objective analysis of election results is possible but merely that what passes for analysis in the immediate aftermath of the election results is often nothing but a form of self-justifying wish fulfilment on the part of all concerned. The media seeks grand explanations that collapse the local complexity of elections into a global feel-good story while individual parties strive to tell themselves that nothing needs to change at a fundamental level; the problem is possible to explain away using local variables.

The real question that the elections throw up might well have to do the state of leadership in India today. It appears that the need for strong local leaders cuts across parties. Wherever, at the state level we see strong local leadership, we find that the party in question, be it regional or national seems to be in good shape. The challenge for national parties, particularly in states with strong presence of regional forces, is to build credible and empowered local leaders. But in the magic mirror called election results, it seems that we can all see exactly what we want to see.