December 02, 2020
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The Illusion Of Change

Scattered thoughts on the Samajwadi Party’s win in Uttar Pradesh (the best performance by a single party in that state since 1985; the previous contemporary benchmark was set by the BSP in 2007)

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The Illusion Of Change
The Illusion Of Change

  1. Taking both —2007 and 2012 —elections together, it’s increasingly clear that the SP and BSP have become the DMK/AIADMK of the north, alternating with massive swings, with neither party able to decisively move the state in its favour. Claims of sweeping change and the new Indian voter may keep editorial writers busy, but what is most clearly visible is the kind of political stasis that’s become the norm in Tamil Nadu. It’s the culmination of a decades-long process, leading to the largest states in the “heartland” being just as “regional” as anyplace else (indeed, the media’s insistence on referring to them as “national” parties notwithstanding, the Congress and BJP seem to have the best shot of winning in “regions” – think of Andhra Pradesh; Kerala; Karnataka – rather than in much of the (real or imagined) heartland (neither party seems capable of leading a government in either U.P. or Bihar for the foreseeable future).
  2. Depressingly (but all too predictably), meaningful discussions of the first-past-the-post system are absent from the mainstream media. My point about stasis is borne out when one considers the respective vote-share of the various parties (2007 vote-shares indicated in parentheses): the SP garnered 29% of votes cast (25.4% in 2007); the BSP 26% (30.4%); the BJP 15% (17%); and the Congress 14% (8.6%). Stated differently, the SP and BSP combined for 55% of votes cast in 2012, almost unchanged from the nearly 56% last time; the Westminster-style system means, especially in three- or four-way contests, that even small swings in vote-shares can lead to landslides. [Ironically, the most significant change in vote-share was in favour of the Congress, which won more than half as many new voters in 2012 as it had in 2007; given the party’s disarray in U.P., much of that has to be attributed to Rahul Gandhi’s personal popularity; and an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal.]
  3. The results also bear out the limits of a Presidential-style campaign in India, the sort many in the metros seem to hanker for, perhaps because of a craving for strong/decisive leadership; or because of the siren call of the American Presidential campaigns, an inescapably global spectacle; or because it makes for better ratings. But the one thing it does not make for is better electoral sense, Indian ishtyle. The BJP learned this the hard way in two national elections, focusing much of its 2004 campaign as a referendum on Vajpayee, and the next one on Manmohan Singh’s weakness; Rahul Gandhi, like Vajpayee, has rather high approval ratings (one exit poll showed him with higher ratings than any plausible candidate for U.P. Chief Minister, including Akhilesh Singh Yadav). That’s nice, but isn’t a game-changer in the absence of a robust party structure at the grassroots – and should give partisans of Modi some pause as the BJP gears up for the 2014 federal elections: a recent India Today poll showed him with 24% support, a higher approval rating for Prime Minister than anyone else, but it will take a lot more than popularity for the BJP to ride Modi’s air of authoritarian efficiency to power at the Centre.
  4. Not much needs to be said about the Congress, which is definitely in trouble: its Andhra contingent will take a beating in 2014 in light of the Telengana issue (to be fair, it had won so many seats from the state in recent elections there’s really no way but down); it seems likely to lose Maharashtra as well; and since there’s no Rahul-led revival in the Hindi heartland to make up those numbers (there was a slight surge in the 2009 federal elections, giving the Congress 22 seats from U.P., but it’s hard to believe they could better that tally, and easy to believe they could go down), the party faces a challenging 2014 election.
  5. The BJP is, in a sense, in even worse shape: for the Congress has at least twice demonstrated a pathway to power without serious success in any of the three largest Hindi heartland states (in 2009, it only won 35 seats from U.P., Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, as opposed to 33 from Andhra Pradesh, the state with the largest contingent of Congress members of Parliament; by contrast, the BJP won 38 seats from those three states). But for the BJP to emerge as a credible alternative to the Congress, it will need to do better in the Hindi heartland. Perhaps more successful alliance partners – the Telugu Desam can expect to do better than its 2009 haul of 6 seats from Andhra in 2014; as will the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu – will help, although that could lead to a different problem, since the BJP’s most popular vote-winner (or at least crowd-puller) – Modi – is precisely the one who might alienate potential alliance partners like the Telegu Desam or even the current ally Bihar’s Janata Dal (United). At a minimum, Modi’s intra-party rivals like Sushma Swaraj will be making that case.
  6. I have no hope that these results will lead people to stop talking about “vote-banks” (Muslim or otherwise), but I’ll never get tired of pointing out that Muslim voters don’t have any fewer worldly concerns than anyone else, and don’t seem to be any stupider than their non-Muslim compatriots: Congress promises of reservations for Muslims, claims of tears shed over the Batla-house encounter, don’t seem to have counted for as much with U.P.’s Muslim voters as the SP’s (but not only the SP’s) proven track record of increasing Muslim representation in the halls of power: this is the fourth straight U.P. election where the number of Muslims in the State Assembly has gone up, from 33 in 1996; to 47 in 2002; 56 in 2007; and 69 in 2012. No-one should be dense enough to believe that mere representation is enough – but its opposite is no cure-all either; and more importantly, the sorts of candidates put up by the likes of the SP and BSP tend to be different from those the Congress patronizes. The “court Muslims” of Salman Khurshid’s ilk make for great television, and on the other hand some parties seem unable to think beyond clerics when it comes to the Muslim vote (the SP itself nominated Imam Bukhari's son-in-law from a Saharanpur seat; he lost, along with every other Muslim candidate from this Muslim-heavy district); but time and again the likes of the SP and BSP have demonstrated that their Muslim candidates are more rooted, more attuned to their constituencies, and simply more popular. In short, the SP and BSP treat their Muslim voters like they treat any other voters, nominating the usual mix of fixers, strong-men, gangsters, and a smattering of decent folk, to represent them. It isn’t pretty, nor rarefied, but it’s real; that is, Muslim voters are real for the likes of the SP and BSP in a way they never are for the Congress. India’s grand old party is, at least in U.P., far too much in love with its own concept of Muslims to let reality get in the way (The 2009 elections offered a case in point, when the Congress nominated Noor Bano from Muslim-majority Rampur; the daughter-in-law of the erstwhile royal family of Rampur promptly lost to SP's Jaya Prada).
  7. Finally, I had completely underestimated the effect the clean cut, “modern” sounding “heir” Akhilesh Yadav would have on the U.P. electorate, with (in at least one exit poll) higher approval ratings for the position of Chief Minister than Mulayam himself. The fathers (whether in Indian cinema or in politics) seem to need these sons to re-invigorate themselves, or at least to safeguard the promise that there will be a future. Mulayam Singh is likely the next Chief Minister of U.P., but might not have gotten the chance absent his son (the son, meanwhile, might not get a chance for a while: in 2017, who would bet against a BSP return to power as a result of anti-SP anti-incumbency; and in 2022, Akhilesh would be in his late 40s, youthful no longer). Ultimately, even sons may be sacrificed… and, in a sense, they are even when they replace their fathers (as Omar Abdullah did in Jammu & Kashmir a few years ago) – replacing them so that the dynasty might perpetuate its reign, standing in for them as it were, yet permanently inscribed in a dynastic signature. And if the tone of this last paragraph is a bit elegiac, it must be so: there isn’t much to resent. It reminds me of my own blind spot, my resistance to acknowledging what should have been apparent for years, if the media frisson around the likes of Omar Abdullah, Rahul Gandhi, and a host of other political princes, is anything to go by. The Indian mantra seems to be a Zizekian punch-line: I want the illusion of change, so please safeguard me from the real thing by sending me an inheritor.

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