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Elections 2017: Many uncertainties abound

Over the last few elections, it has become clear that it is not possible for anyone to offer a meaningful prediction of the eventual outcome. The electorate is too large and diffuse, and the interplay of local and national factors too complex to be amenable to accurate forecasting. Neither the personal and direct experience of seasoned election watchers nor the scientific surveys, of which there is no shortage, seem to be able to produce results that can be relied upon. Pre-poll surveys are now entertainment rather than science, and should be viewed as such.

vote(AFP photo)

As it turns out, the level of uncertainty that surrounds most of the impending state elections is even more than usual. The emergence of the AAP as a first-time contender in Goa and particularly Punjab has opened up all kinds of possibilities in terms of outcomes, of which it is difficult to get a good sense. And then there is the uncertainty introduced by demonetisation which is the kind of action that is so unprecedented, that virtually no one is entirely sure as to how it will play out in economic or electoral terms. On the one hand, it has caused a lot of inconvenience and misery in rural areas, and the economic effects unleashed by it are likely to continue for a while. On the other, so far indications seem to be that the move continues to be popular in its intent, and that might play positively for the BJP. The party on its part seems to be unsure too, for there is a discernible softening of the chest thumping surrounding the ‘second surgical strike’.

In fact, there appears to be a larger uncertainty that both the government and the party are exuding currently. The party seems tentative about the exact proportions in which to juggle its electoral ingredients- how much to back development, what role should caste and community fault lines play, how effective would the plank of nationalism be in state elections, and of course whether to try and ride on demonetization or to hold back given the uncertainty around its impact on the voter. The government too seems to be in wait-and-watch mode, not giving any clear indication about what its future direction might be. Will it continue it’s wooing of the poor- ‘the tired pro-poor Congress rhetoric’, as it has been described, at the cost of its traditional support base, or will the reform thrust return in any significant way?

The other unknown factor in UP is the emergence of Akhilesh Yadav as a brand in his own right. In the last few weeks, he has shown deft political footwork and has emerged as a new kind of option in the political landscape. The alliance with the Congress gives him just that little edge that might turn out to be decisive, but it isn’t entirely clear as to how deep his support runs. He is a new variation on an old theme, the strength of whose appeal is an open question.

Some things however are a little more certain. Whether or not demonetisation works economically and electorally, what it has achieved however is something potentially more significant in the long run for Narendra Modi. It has made him a truly mainstream brand. Every voter in India now knows him and has some personal emotional reaction to him. Money reaches everyone; as a vehicle of a political message it is a more effective advertising medium than any other. It is possible that some or indeed many of these reactions are negative, but he has become the only politician in recent times, after Indira Gandhi to have managed this depth of reach.

The other relative certainty is that the Congress will continue its decline, regardless of its performance in terms of the number of seats it manages to win. It is true that the party has narrowly managed to avoid electoral oblivion in UP, in spite of giving it a really good try, by successfully lurching towards an alliance with Akhilesh. What’s more, it has managed a really good deal for itself- 105 seats is a very generous share, that many argue its past performances do not warrant. But the bigger picture is that it keeps finding ways of  sabotaging itself. It still has not found a storyline for itself that has any electoral heft, and its handling of the leadership question is a continuing mystery. The way in which it has been using Priyanka is a case in point. From where the Congress stands today, it has few reasons for optimism and Priyanka gives them a chance, albeit slender, of creating fresh interest and energy. She has good political instincts and is significantly more charismatic than Rahul. For instance, her reaction to the comments made by local BJP leader Vinay Katiyar show a measure of sophistication that we have rarely seen from her brother. The half-hearted deployment of Priyanka in this election makes her old news, without using whatever it is that she might bring to the party. If she was to be used, it would have made sense to re-launch the party under her leadership, but the Congress seems so caught in its internal family dynamic (we will not hurt Rahul by promoting Priyanka but equally will not let him lead the party either) that it shows little interest in mounting a coherent strategy.

The next few weeks will be interesting for it is possible for all scenarios to potentially come true. We could be seeing a sweep for the BJP in UP on the back of popular support for demonetisation, a triumphant ride to power for the AAP in Punjab, Akhilesh could surprise us, Mayawati could sneak in under the radar, or we could see hung assemblies everywhere. One thing is sure- after the event; there will be no dearth of people explaining with a great deal of certainty, as to why things turned out the way they did.

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