During my (somewhat infrequent) visits to Odisha over the past two years, I have been intrigued by the fact that the chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, has always been preoccupied with elections. It began with the panchayat polls, followed by two lots of municipal elections, a set of studentsí union elections and, finally, now, the forthcoming assembly and Lok Sabha polls that, mercifully for him, will be held simultaneously. As the head of a regional party, Patnaik takes all these tests of popularity very seriously and (apart from the studentís union polls) goes out campaigning for the Biju Janata Dal candidates.
Patnaik is by no means an exceptional politician. West Bengalís pugnacious chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is also known to take a deep personal interest in all the polls that are forever being held for the different tiers of our democracy. During his stint as the first Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Karnataka, the now-controversial B.S. Yeddyurappa took pride in proclaiming that under his stewardship his party won most of the local polls and by-elections.
That every chief minister who prides himself or herself on his or her mass appeal is deeply involved in every aspect of state politics is understandable. Gone are the days of patrician chief ministers such as Bidhan Chandra Roy and Biju Patnaik who maintained a distance between the state secretariat and the proverbial parish pump. Contemporary democracy has become an interlinked chain whereby what happens at the panchayat level ends up having a bearing on who gets to rule at the state capital. From maintaining law and order and issuing birth and death certificates to maintaining a public distribution system and managing the national rural employment guarantee scheme, the long arm of the State reaches out to the remotest locality.
However, the linkages between state politics and government at the Centre are a little more problematic. There was a time until 1967 when the Congress dominated both the Centre and the states ó recall the furore over the solitary and short-lived Communist victory in Kerala in 1957. After 1967, the Congress monopoly was briefly broken (and permanently broken in Tamil Nadu) but Indira Gandhi, who restored Congress dominance, invariably campaigned in state elections on the platform that development was dependant on Congress regimes both at the Centre and in the states. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi ill- advisedly staked his larger reputation by over-campaigning in West Bengal and came a complete cropper. However, after 1984, the mismatch between who rules from Delhi and who controls the states has become routine. Prime ministers such as P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have rarely, if ever, made their political reputation hostage to the verdict of the states.
The rules that apply to prime ministers, it would seem, do not apply to political leaders who aspire to the bungalows on Race Course Road in Lutyensís Delhi. In recent years, the Congressís heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi, staked his political reputation on his partyís performance in the assembly elections of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The dismal performance of the Congress in these two states can be said to have affected his standing as a national leader. If the Gandhi heir isnít taken as seriously as Congress feels he ought to be, much of the blame can be attributed to his over-involvement in the two states where the Congress has never really recovered since 1989.
Given the treacherous experience of Ďnationalí politicians gambling on state elections where they neither control the terrain nor determine the agenda, it would seem that the BJPís prime ministerial candidate has taken a huge risk by over-investing in the outcome of the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. Since the issues that determine voting behaviour for state assemblies differ quite markedly from the national issues that are supposedly all-important in a Lok Sabha poll, the BJP decision to put Narendra Modiís national reputation on the line is audacious. While a positive outcome will no doubt have a bandwagon effect, any less-than-categorical outcome could create complications for his 2014 general election campaign.
Where Modi differs from his Congress challenger is that he had very little choice in the matter. Having been elevated to the position of the BJPís prime ministerial candidate as late as September 13, Modi was under pressure from two different quarters. First, following a series of extremely successful public meetings in Hyderabad, Rewari (Haryana), Patna and Kanpur, his office was inundated with requests from over-enthusiastic foot soldiers of the BJP to work the crowds in the poll-bound states. Simultaneously, he was egged on by those in the BJP who had accepted his primacy very grudgingly to demonstrate what value addition he would bring to the party in states where it was already strong.
For Modi, the possible exhilaration of giving a significant boost to the BJP campaigns was juxtaposed with the risks of countering possible local anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and having to campaign for a leader with a less-than-wholesome public image in Delhi. Fortunately for him, the national leadership belatedly realized its folly in Delhi and chose Harsh Vardhan as its chief ministerial candidate in Delhi. However, by this time the Aam Aadmi Party had capitalized on the BJPís shortcomings and grabbed a chunk of the anti-Congress space. It was also fortunate for him that the initial reluctance of the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, to give too much importance to Modi soon gave way to intense nervousness over local anti-incumbency. Modi was called in to enthuse BJP workers and firm up the committed BJP vote.
The extent to which Modi played a role in boosting the BJPís prospects in the four states is impossible to quantify. Any assessment will be based on perception. However, if the Congress fails to make the grade and fails to win any of the four states, the impression that Modi played a significant role in bringing about that defeat will prove irresistible and may even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet, even if the exit polls prove accurate, it would be judicious to not overstate Modiís contribution. In assembly elections, local issues are pre-eminent, although in the just-concluded elections the Congress may get a battering on account of the perceived mismanagement of inflation by the Centre. For the BJP, the credit for a good performance must go primarily to the incumbent and aspiring chief ministers. Modiís role lay in working harmoniously with them and giving an extra push to the campaign. If this synergy delivers results it will demonstrate two things. First, that the BJP can bank on its local units to deliver; and second, that Modiís elevation has not had a negative fallout, as the Congress believed it would.
The extent to which Modi will bring in the extra votes for the BJP will be tested in 2014. The initial indications are that the overall mood in the country is broadly anti-Congress. Modiís challenge will be to convert a substantial part of that anti-incumbency into a positive vote for him. The assembly elections (going by the exit polls) may have indicated that there is little emotional resistance to his candidature. Now he faces the more daunting task of ensuring that the BJP leadership select candidates who donít undercut the willingness of voters to give him a chance. The assembly elections have probably given Modi a wonderful springboard: itís how he takes the upward leap that will determine whether he wins gold or silver.
If the results go the BJPís way on Sunday, he will start as the favourite.