London, May 15: When I woke up in my bed on Thursday morning in London I had that sinking feeling fear of a bad day ahead brings on. I was reluctant to press the button on the radio in case the news about the Indian election showed those despatches I had filed for The Telegraph were all wrong. When I finally acknowledged that I couldnít shut my ears to the results for ever, and did press that button, I was dismayed.
Although I had never swallowed the BJP line, and believed that they would sweep back to power, even the most cautious poll I had seen forecast they would form a government with support from outside the NDA. I had gone along with that line. Now here was the Congress alliance forging ahead. But as the day wore on I came to think I hadnít got it entirely wrong.
One of the few people who did get it right was Mala Singh, editor of Seminar Magazine. Ed Luce, the Financial Times correspondent in Delhi quoted her the next day as saying, ďIf you look at how journalists and even politicians operate, they go to the small towns and think they have landed in the real India.Ē This is not an exercise in self congratulation. I am sure there were plenty of journalists who did go beyond the small towns, but I am certainly glad I was one of them, because it was the Indian villager who gave me those of my insights which were correct.
I will always be grateful to the itinerant village blacksmith in Andhra Pradesh who told me he had to change his politics as he moved from village to village. He put me right. I realised this wasnít a general election at all, it was a series of local elections. You might argue it was a series of state elections, but they were certainly dominated by local not national issues. That I think is why my rather unkind remarks about pollsters when I returned from rural Andhra have been justified. They didnít go down to the grassroots. In Andhra Pradesh villages I soon found neither Sonia nor Vajpayee, the national leaders, were factors, the only person the voter was concerned about was Chandrababu Naidu. I have to admit I did find more support for him, particularly among women, than the final result indicated. In the villages of Uttar Pradesh I learnt that caste was still a dominant factor and so I did not think that the rapturous welcome for Rahul Gandhi would result in a dramatic increase in the Congress tally, because his motherís party still has to rebuild a caste base in the state.
While listening to the results one of the memories which came back to me was a supremely self-confident Pramod Mahajan telling Shekhar Gupta on television how his computers had evolved the strategy which won the state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh for his party. The computers had been used to feed in local inputs, and fine tune the campaigns constituency by constituency. Well I donít know what went wrong this time because certainly in one constituency I visited in Uttar Pradesh, Ghazipur, I could see it was very much a local contest, and accurate local information would have told Mahajan the sitting BJP MP should not have been reselected. As it was he took a hammering from the Samajwadi candidate.
In fact the mistake the BJP made from the beginning was seeing the election from Delhi. Any local input would have revealed that most of India was not shining, that visions of Indiaís future grandeur did not compensate for a grim present, that the Vajpayee factor wouldnít work because chief ministers count for more than Prime Ministers, and that no matter how slick the advertising it would not seduce the Indian villager. The BJP lacked a sense of history too. If they had looked back to Rajiv Gandhiís campaign in 1989 they would have recalled that even having details down to the polling booth level on a national computer, employing the best advertising brains in India to run a year-long blitz on the government-controlled electronic media, promoting the Prime Minister and promising a modern India did not work.
There are lessons in history for Congress too. In 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was received with rapture wherever he went in Uttar Pradesh, but that rapture did not turn into votes. Rahul and indeed Priyanka have shown this time that rapture does not equal votes. The magic of the family hasnít worked since 1984 and that was a very special election. Congress has every reason to be grateful to Sonia for holding the party together over the last eight dark years, for having the courage to fight on when most people, including many of her own party colleagues, thought she was a no-hoper, for seeing that Shining India could be made to rebound on the BJP, and for at last acknowledging that she couldnít go it alone and successfully negotiating alliances. But Congress will be failing to interpret the results historically if they think the days when they could rely on the Nehru Gandhi dynastyís charisma to carry them to power are back.
At the same time not just the setback to Narendra Modi in Gujarat but also the failure of the campaign to denigrate Soniaís foreign origin should teach the BJP that Indiaís ancient tradition of tolerance is alive and kicking, and so they canít rely on a return to the heydays of the Ayodhya campaign. This election shows that the Indian voter has a mind of his, or indeed her, own, and is not going to be taken for a ride. And there is a lesson for the pollsters in this too. Indian voters are too independent to be told which way they will vote or which way they have voted. Of course that is a lesson for us journalists too.