Sucheta Dalal :The voter expects too much too soon?
Sucheta Dalal

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The voter expects too much too soon?  

May 17, 2004

By Sucheta Dalal

The most worrying aspect of the latest round of elections is not that the electorate has voted for change, but that neither pundits, politicians or pollsters still have a clue about what want wrong.

After the BJP’s success in the assembly elections of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, we were told that people had voted for progress and development. In other words, people voted for bijli, sadak, paani.

But, at least two chief ministers were unwilling to buy the explanation even then. One was Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan, a competent CM who felt he had done alright by the people. The other was Digvijay Singh, the man who had decade to deliver reforms to the people but still seems angry at the unreasonable expectations of the electorate.

After the assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka had dispatched N. Chandrababu Naidu and S.M. Krishna from their posts, Digvijay Singh was back on television making common cause with them. He was especially sympathetic to Naidu, who he felt was also a victim of over-expectation. Is that the answer? Is the electorate mature or simply capricious? Is it sending a message that our political parties and the media aren’t hearing? Or has the India-Bharat divide widened so much that we don’t understand each other any more.

Both Naidu and Krishna have been prudently silent after their loss at least to the national media. But a TDP leader said in a televised comment, ‘‘I am aware that people are unhappy. But I think we did our best. Whatever was possible within our means, we did it’’.

Is that the answer? Is this really as good as it gets? What then explains the return of Navin Patnaik in Orissa? That he didn’t raise too many expectations, so he couldn’t dash them to the ground either? Both Digvijay Singh and N. Chandrababu Naidu were given two terms or an entire decade to make a difference. Neither can claim that the people wanted change in a huge hurry. Both could have read the voters’ signals at the beginning of their second term when they narrowly regained power.

Naidu particularly, was a loner and a control-freak and he had indeed dismantled the support structures of farmers at village and taluka levels, leaving them feeling vulnerable and helpless. On the other hand, Pramod Mahajan, the chief strategist of the BJP, has been on a virtual talkathon on every television network willing to air his views. Mahajan was credited with having all the answers based on a nationwide, grassroots survey, and is said to have persuaded the Prime Minister to call for early election.

The results show that Mahajan and the BJP bungled badly. He judged the mood wrong, made the wrong alliances and rejected the right ones. Yet, investors and businessmen listened carefully to Mahajan’s words, hoping to find clues as to how to interpret the economic policies of the new government. After all, economic growth and infrastructure development were the main election planks of the BJP, until they switched to personal attacks against Sonia Gandhi as the elections neared.

At the end of all the talk, there are still no answers. Mahajan merely countered every question posed to him with an opposite example or hypothesis. Was the electorate disgusted with personal attacks against Gandhi? His answer is that non-NDA parties attacked Atal Bihari Vajpayee and BJP leaders too. Did the electorate reject the ‘‘India Shining’’ claim because its benefits had not begun to reach the rural masses? Well, Mumbai and Delhi routed BJP while rural Maharashtra gave it lots of seats. It would have been a complete washout for the Shiv Sena-BJP in Mumbai, Mahajan’s home city, if the gangster vote had not cut out each other to allow a solitary win.

Did BJP lose because it abandoned Hindutva as a plank? Then why did it lose so many seats in Gujarat, the seat of Hindutva? Also, what explains the defeat o Vishwa Hindu Parishad strongmen like Vinay Katiyar, Swami Chinmayanand and Murli Manohar Joshi? Are people telling them that they are tired of obscurantist views and anti-reform activities?

Does the defeat of Naidu and Krishna spell an end to ‘‘reformist’’ chief ministers? If it is, then it must be a five-month old development, because the BJP and Congress victories in five states were attributed only to reform and progress. Is it possible that politicians are determined to ignore the powerful messages in several individual defeats?

For instance, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha. It is hard to believe that Jharkhand voters defeated him for the UTI debacle and the stock scam of 2000; but isn’t it conceivable that he never quite regained his tarnished reputation since then? The BJP may have protected him by merely switching ministries, but the electorate probably didn’t. Another question that remained unanswered, after all the soul searching, is whether the electorate is impatient or governments are making no serious effort to meet people’s expectations? Anywhere you look there is frustration over outdated laws, stifling bureaucracy and corruption. Several chief ministers have argued that their good intentions are not translated into swift action because of bureaucratic hurdles. Is that why good CMs fail to deliver results? Again, it wouldn’t apply to Chandrababu Naidu, whose bureaucracy was also with him.

The 24-hour television brings us daily images of our netas flaunting expensive lifestyles. They are either huffing on health club tread mills, zipping in expensive cars or attending five-star parties with film stars and socialites attired in designer clothes images that don’t go down well with ordinary folks and show that politicians are the biggest beneficiaries of Shining India. This mess of confused messages does not bode well for any new government to frame its economic policies. The Congress, which has emerged a surprised victor doesn’t seem to have any clearer answers either. In the circumstances, it will be interesting to see what shape the Common Minimum Programme of the Congress-led coalition will take, because that may point the direction that the economy will take.

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-- Sucheta Dalal