Long Last Week
Last Bastion of Feudalism
Metamorphosis of Election Process
No More TINA
Rahul Gandhi Fan
Long Last Week
The British Labour Party leader Harold Wilson famously remarked how a week is a long time in politics. How long is the last week in our elections, which end on the 12th followed by ballot counting on the 16th? Meanwhile, in the still evolving political landscape of Varanasi, a week is proving to be game-changer. It looks as if the three-cornered contest between Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Congress’s Ajay Rai is now boiling down to a straight contest between Delhi’s god-that-failed and the BJP’s chief campaigner Modi who brilliantly crafted his party’s election.
What does the long last week hold out? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
Last Bastion of Feudalism
In those good old, old days when the Whigs and Tories merrily ruled the United Kingdom taking their turns and the virus of democracy was firmly under control, there were “parliamentary boroughs which possessed a Royal charter giving them the right to send two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons. For centuries, constituencies electing members to the House of Commons did not change. No wonder the number of electors became so few that they could be conveniently bribed.
Till 1831, out of 406 elected members of the Commons, 152 were chosen by fewer than one hundred voters, and 88 by fewer than fifty voters. The constituencies they so represented were called pocket or rotten boroughs. This happy arrangement ended with the 1832 Reform Act.Later, the Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot, which greatly hindered patrons from controlling elections.
Jawaharlal introduced this felicitous arrangement for himself in Phulpur and later Indira Gandhi replicated the model in Rae Bareli and Amethi.
However, on May 5, Narendra Modi, ventured into the Gandhi bastion like a conquering Roman general in support of his party’s candidate, Smirti Irani contesting against Rahul Gandhi. Ms.Priyanka Vadra’s question, “Smriti who?” rebounded on her, exposing both her characteristic arrogance and ignorance.
Amethi, the Gandhi family pocket borough has always been a collection of anomalies — a family fiefdom in the age of democracy. It was treated as a family constituency, a package of entitlements that began with Sanjay Gandhi and passed on like a family heirloom. Last time, it had sent Rahul Gandhi back with a victory margin of 3,70,000 votes.
However, the family fiefdom was stagnating in the back waters of a feudal past. Everyone knew it was an anomaly, speaking a feudal idiom in the age of citizenship. The Gandhis behaved like royalty and Amethi was content to treat them like one. But as times changed, a new generation emerged less respectful of the Nehru-Gandhi parivar.
Earlier the AAP candidate Kumar Vishwas had received a cold shoulder. The media was convinced that “the defeated” have no claim to attention. It’s only the possible victors who get the spotlight. But one has to go beyond the logic of numbers. Rahul Gandhi might still win but only as the Biblical phrase has it, with the skin of his teeth. If you tell me teeth have no skin, I’ll say wait till the 16th and find out for yourself. The old taken-for-granted-ness of a fiefdom is cracking like a porcelain jug.
Metamorphosis of Election Process
I think by holding a needlessly prolonged multi-phase poll – and all in the name of security - the Election Commission seems unwittingly to have changed the nature of the electoral game, and forever. In the most unlikely event of its changing the tack in the future, all political parties are likely, as the currently popular phrase has it, to game the system.
(Hearing this Fowler will turn over in his grave several times. Why you may ask? Instead of playing the game in the spirit of the game, the phrase has, instead, come to mean abusing the system and using the rules and procedures meant to protect it, to manipulate it for a desired outcome. Could Henry Watson Fowler ever imagine this blasphemy while compiling his style guide that my generation swore by, called A Dictionary of Modern English Usage?)
The most startling change is the result of the Commission’s decision to hold polls even in adjoining constituencies over several phases. If Uttar Pradesh started polling on 10 April and the process will end only a month later after six rounds on 12 May, it means on an average only 12-14 seats are being polled at a time. This has profound implications for the fairness of the electoral outcomes.
Political parties can, for example, now onwards micro-cast different messages for different constituencies and change colors more frequently than a chameleon can dream of. A party can thus choose a development theme in phase one, a caste theme in phase two, a communal theme in phase three, and then flip back and forth till it achieves its beloved aim of being all things to all people.
It was, you’ll recall, that shrewd Andhra politician, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy who, in 2009, spotted this loophole for the first time and very deftly exploited its potential. In the first phase of Andhra polling he pretended to be pro-Telangana and in the next he went virulently against the idea – and, surprisingly, won in both regions. Isn’t it having your bread buttered on both sides?
In this election, nobody has been better able to use this opportunity to micro-cast messages than Narendra Modi. His campaign depended on sending well-tailored messages for each region, complete with a personal appeal. In Amethi, for example, he played the development messiah picking holes - and many a pothole - in the Rahul Gandhi fiefdom. In Faizabad, he made subtle references to Ram Rajya, and in West Bengal he talked of favoring refugees who celebrate Durgoshtami and swear by Hindu beliefs.
Most importantly, since the prime message is Modi himself, and his personal promise of development and governance, he can effectively make himself the virtual candidate in almost all constituencies. Thus, an Ananth Kumar in Bangalore South can parry a Nandan Nilekani’s effort to corner him on local issues by pointing out that people are voting for Modi, and not just him. Modi himself, by his indefatigable efforts, has addressed about 450 rallies before and after the election dates were in sight. This means candidate Modi has effectively appealed to all constituencies directly.
From this you can indeed draw three conclusions worth mulling over. And these conclusions will profoundly impact the future elections.
First and foremost, all political parties can now take completely contradictory positions in two different phases of the polls, as YSR did as mentioned above. They can thus have two agendas - a national one and a hyper-local one. This is clearly happening in UP and Bihar this time, and to some extent in West Bengal too. The trend is likely to be repeated.
Secondly, parties can now use their key campaigners far more effectively than before. If Modi is the vote winner and not the local candidate (as in many cases) he can turn up in almost every constituency and say, “vote for me” even if he himself isn’t the candidate. In assembly elections, in particular, this can help a party with a star campaigner over-ride the consequences of fielding an unelectable local candidates.
Thirdly, voting trends in earlier phases can impact voter behavior in later phases of the poll. This trend will impact all parties equally.
One can debate whether this is good or bad for democracy, but if one believes that allowing parties to be different things to different people is a travesty, then it does not make sense to have polling extending to one-and-a-half-months.
I’ve seen many commentators mention that 2014 poll has been like a presidential-type election. Whether you favor the American system or not - you just cannot avoid it - or at least an attenuated version thereof! Haven’t Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee all been projected as mascots of their parties? Haven’t regional parties all fought their campaigns presidentially - Jayalalitha in TN, Mayawati in UP, Mamata in West Bengal and even Shivraj Singh and Vasundhara Raje last year? Personality attribute of the presidential system is now inevitable, at least to some extent.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the 2014 election has been the deployment of professional marketing inputs. What truly distinguishes 2014 from other presidential-type contests is the application of sophisticated marketing tools, including digital and social media ones, to win over the electorate.
Elections 2014 began projecting marketing messages to voters almost as if this were a product launch. This indeed provided Modi a decisive edge this time. Henceforth, it will become routine. And we can look forward to future elections to be more professionally run marketing campaigns by all parties.
No More of TINA
Once upon a time people voted Congress saying TINA. This time we have decisively moved away from There Is No Alternative to There Are Many Alternatives.
For over two decades now, State parties have become important players in national elections. But this is the first time where even in states, coalitions are becoming important. Many states are now three-front or four-party/front contests.
Rahul Gandhi Fan
A teacher asked her 6th grade class how many of them were Rahul Gandhi fans. Not really knowing what a Rahul Gandhi fan is, but wanting to be liked by the teacher, all the kids raised their hands except for little Johnny. The teacher asked little Johnny why he has decided to be different… again. Little Johnny said, “Because I’m not a Rahul Gandhi fan.” The teacher asked, “Why aren’t you a fan of Rahul Gandhi?” Johnny said, “Because I’m a BJP supporter.” The teacher asked him why he was a BJP supporter. Little Johnny answered, “Well, my mom is a BJP supporter and my Dad is a BJP supporter, so I am a BJP supporter.”
Annoyed by the answer, the teacher asked, “If your mom was a moron, and your dad was an idiot, what would that make you?”
With a big smile, little Johnny replied, “That would make me a Rahul Gandhi fan.”