Economy Becoming Important in Deciding Electoral Fortunes
The state of the economy is increasingly being considered a crucial element in elections as voters now tend to give greater priority to ground realities of price rise and job opportunities, though caste and regional considerations continue to remain important. The situation of course differs from state to state.
The people of Gujarat, for instance, seem to have forgiven and forgotten the role of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the communal riots of the past and given him a vote of confidence for having speeded up economic development and improved infrastructure in the state.
In contrast is Uttar Pradesh where the social engineering of Chief Minister Mayawati apparently reigns supreme as caste and religion continue to remain predominant factors in elections. No doubt the approach of the electorate to their political leaders reflects on the overall development of different states with Gujarat way ahead as far as most economic indicators are concerned while Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst performing states in the country on most counts.
However, even with such yawning differences between the perceptions of the electorates in different states, basic economic issues such as price rise and jobs have always played a key role in elections. In one famous instance, the soaring prices of onions brought down a government.
It is no wonder therefore that Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan is not interested in espousing Hindutva as an election issue and instead has sought to highlight his developmental work to promote the cause of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. One must also recall the scramble among state governments to bag the Nano project.
So the report card of the economy is increasingly becoming critical during general elections. And the judgement of the electorate on this score is going to be vital for the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well as the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the rising Third Front.
Even Mayawati has become aware of the need to ensure that there is a significant improvement in the economic well-being of the people. Despite her focus on the much-vaunted social engineering to harness the energies of both Dalits and Brahmins, she is reported to have chalked out a systematic plan to ensure development of infrastructure. And bureaucrats have been directed to implement time bound programmes of development.
Whether these plans have actually been successful or not is a moot point. But the fact is that during this tenure as chief minister, Mayawati has not been unmindful of the need to bring about a tangible change in the quality of life rather than merely relying on caste-based support. This is diametrically different from the route adopted by Railway Minister Lalu Prasad when he was Bihar chief minister, as his focus was more on caste considerations than on trying to pull the state out of its economic backwardness.
In contrast, the present Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has recognized the need for trying to bring the fruits of economic progress to the most backward areas of the state and his recent tour of all districts was an effort to publicize the drive towards economic development.
Another aspect of this realization by political leaders is the anxiety to try and woo large industrial projects to enhance job opportunities. The story of the Nano project is well known but even for other ventures there has been stiff competition. Maharashtra, for example, used to be the state of choice for most investors at one point of time.
This is no longer the case with the southern states having vied successfully for major plants. It is for this reason that the giant Hyundai plant is in Tamil Nadu though its major market is in North India.
One of the main aims of West Bengal's Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been to revive the state's former glory as a bastion of industrialization and economic progress. The failure of the Nano project to take off in Singur came as a major blow to these aspirations.
So while political commentators try to work out the caste configurations of each Lok Sabha seat, it is clear that voting patterns will be different in regions where economic development has made inroads.
For instance, the continuing farmers suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha will make life very difficult for incumbent political leaders. On the other hand, in Gujarat where Narendra Modi is reported to have brought about a sea-change in the developmental process, especially in regard to wiping out corruption, the people are expected to once again vote overwhelmingly in favor of the BJP.
As general elections are round the corner, every economic indicator released on a routine basis is being watched with a hawk's eye by both the ruling coalition and parties in the opposition.
This includes the latest data on declining industrial output and the fall in inflation numbers. The first set of figures showing a dip in industrial output during December are bound to be worrying for the incumbent government since this is an indicator that several stimulus packages have not kicked in to give much-needed pep to the economy.
From the point of view of opposition parties, the industrial output data indicates that the economic gloom is not only continuing but that the blame for it can be squarely laid at the door of the UPA government.
On the other hand, the decline of the wholesale price index brings cheer not only to the ruling coalition but to the common man as it signals a fall in prices of essential commodities. Inflation has reached a seven-year low at 2.3 percent.
Retail prices at the consumer level tend to remain much higher than the wholesale price index, but even so there will be some relief for the man (or woman) in the street. For the opposition this is bad news as the price situation is always a key factor with voters while judging the performance of an incumbent government.
The economy may not always be the clinching factor for voters as they go to the ballot booths, but it is certainly playing a much larger role than before.
Plus, it is possible that young voters who are constituting an increasingly large segment of the electorate, will look more for a perceptible improvement in the quality of life rather than going by the old, traditional parameters while voting.
(Sushma Ramachandran is an economic and corporate analyst. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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