Millennium Post

Understanding party strategies

In my last column I had noted that a number of factors set this general election apart from previous elections. For one, voters seem to be coming forward in large numbers to cast their mandate. Second, and more important, voters seem to be giving a decisive mandate so that the past practice of putting together a final government with the help of a number of independent candidates is unlikely to work. In fact, one can expect the number of winning independent candidates to go down significantly. Third, the new voters are now substantial and which way they swing can make a significant difference to the final outcome. Fourth, a split in votes among a number of major (national or regional) parties can make one  party, even with a minority vote, obtain a decisive mandate in terms of the number of seats in parliament. This is of course the usual problem in a ‘first past the post’ system of any parliamentary democracy. Yet this is likely to cause much more heartburn this time. Finally, the caste-religion factor seems less decisive today so that parties will have to come up with a new USP.  So how do the national parties stack up in terms of their strategies for the coming election?

The BJP and the NDA seem to be ahead here. The BJP seems to be setting up a large number of small allies particularly in regions (like the South) where their representation in the past has been close to zero. Hence the attempt to tie up with small allies like the TDP (in former Andhra), the DMDK, PMK etc in Tamil Nadu, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP in Bihar, the multitude of small regional parties in the northeast etc. As I mentioned in my previous column, any ruling coalition will have to be a stable cartel. Such a cartel requires a dominant core which, in the case of the NDA, is the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the SAD. With a number of small allies if the total strength adds up to the magic figure of 272 MPs, it is likely that this coalition would survive the full five year term.

Second, the (informal) discussions with the MNS in Maharashtra seems motivated by the second factor: a split in votes. The MNS and the Shiv Sena obviously share the same vote bank.  A split in this vote bank  can only help the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra which could  win a majority of seats even if the combined NDA-MNS vote strength is the largest. The attempt at cobbling small alliances in other places also helps. It is important to remember that, in the past, the vote percentage separating the UPA and the NDA has been five per cent or less except for 2009 when the UPA surged ahead by almost 10 per cent vote share. So the small vote percentages with regional allies can make all the difference in the end.

Third, the projection of Modi as the ‘decisive’ factor serves two purposes: one, it brings to the forefront the issues of development and, two, simultaneously sidesteps the mine field of religious issues (Godhra) and caste equations. The reason why Modi cannot ‘apologise’ for 2002 is that the BJP cannot allow this issue to once again to become a major electoral focus. Will economics trump caste and religion? The evidence from the recent past at least suggests  that economics cannot be ignored especially in an increasingly aspirational society.

 So where has the UPA gone wrong? The problem seems poor communication leading to adverse perceptions of the voters. There is no doubt that the UPA period of 2004 to 2014 has been probably the best in post independence history in terms of economic growth. But  the growth factor has been appropriated by Modi! Again, the UPA has suffered as the Congress party is perceived to be the most corrupt ever. The basis? The 2G scam, the coal scam etc. Yet, the actual beneficiaries of most of these scams have been non-Congress individuals or states: Raja of the DMK in the case of the 2G scam and non-Congress states like Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Goa and Orissa in the case of coal. Even in terms of non-performing or allegedly corrupt ministers, the Congress was quick to sack its own but failed to take action against allies. The Congress response: reservations for Jats and Jains, increasing the subsidised LPG cylinders from 9 to 12 etc. One thing is clear:
general subsidies no longer win you elections.

What about the AAP party? As I have written earlier in these columns, its main USP has been the focus on clean candidates, avoidance of identity politics and ending the politics-money power nexus. This alone propelled it from nowhere to a serious candidate as a national party. Yet this party ‘with a difference’ has relapsed into the usual platitudes: down with the Ambani’s and Adani’s (an old Left slogan) and down with every non-AAP actor as, by Kejriwal’s definition, he must be corrupt. The mystery  remains the part’s  long term ideology which is necessary as it is still an unknown in the political sphere. Further, this ideology is the only factor on which a believable strategy of governance can be anchored.

The AAP party so far has proved to be a major spoiler particularly for the Congress which seems to acknowledge this and his been slowly incorporating some of the best features of the AAP in its own internal organisation. So is the BJP all set to regain power? All the psephologists seem to think so. The near unanimity of  a large number of surveys cannot be completely discounted. However,  the AAP is still an unknown, does have an appeal at some level and one doesn’t know whose votes it will split. To quote the famous phrase ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’.

The author is professor of Economics at JNU
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