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THE VOTE GAME BEGINS

- The recent elections were just old hat, except Kejriwal

Elections are Indians’ favourite sport. It used to be cricket. But the combination of round-the-clock television and money-addicted Board of Control for Cricket in India has flooded us with mediocre matches. So stadia are often going empty, and viewership on television has peaked. The Election Commission of India has a clean image; so Indians have greater faith in elections, and it is beginning to beat cricket. The trouble is that the media underinvest in elections. To report on a test or a one-day international, all that a newspaper or channel has to do is to send across a reporter and a cameraman. An election occupies thousands of square miles, and campaigns go on for weeks. So the drama of elections is hardly conveyed; all we get from the media are the end results. Despite the underreporting, the results of the recent assembly elections have attracted much interest, partly because of the upsets, and partly because the general elections are not far and everyone is looking for signs of what will happen in six months’ time.

The watchers would have been disappointed by the outcome in Chhattisgarh. The Congress got a seat more, and the BJP got a seat less. There was one change from the last election: this time, voters had the choice of not voting for anyone standing. As a result, the vote share of minor candidates went down by 5 per cent, and 3 per cent chose not to vote for anyone. The vote share of both the BJP and the Congress went up by a percentage point.

The result is so similar to that of the last election that this election was quite unnecessary. The Election Commission should consider giving voters choice over one more matter: whether they want another election in five years or not. If, say, 88 per cent of the voters vote against it, an election should not be held. That would be unfair to the young people who became eligible in the second election. To safeguard their interest, it should be possible for an electorate that has voted not to have an election to change its mind. All it should require is a referendum.

In Rajasthan, 29 per cent of the voters voted for minor candidates in the last election. This time, many of them saw the pointlessness of voting for local patrons and friends who had no chance of winning; their share of the vote fell by 12 per cent. The vote share of the ruling Congress fell from 37 to 33 per cent; the BJP’s share shot up from 34 to 48 per cent. This is not so much disillusionment with the Congress as a love affair with the BJP. Vasundhara Raje is the daughter of Jiwajirao Scindia (Shinde in modern lingo), the last Maharaja of Gwalior; they are Mahrattas. But the royal lineage evidently appealed to her electorate. There was no preference for the older rulers; Rajputs are no better represented amongst the winning candidates of the BJP than of the Congress, and are a minority amongst both. It was more of a vote of confidence for Vasundhara Raje — and of no confidence in Gehlot. The opinion of BJP supporters is that the Congress lost because it jailed Asaram and his son, Narayan Sai. Asaram is in jail for sexual assault on a girl on the pretext of freeing her from ghosts. His son, who was recently arrested after hiding for a couple of months, is accused of having raped many women. Now, the people of Rajasthan are supposed to have punished the Congress on behalf of the holy father and son — which would imply that the raped women do not count much with them.

Madhya Pradesh saw the same phenomenon as Rajasthan of votes for minor candidates falling — from 30 to 14 per cent. The corresponding rise in vote share went almost equally to the Congress and BJP. But it made no difference; the BJP got a majority again. Congress voters are more concentrated geographically in Madhya Pradesh than BJP voters; a vote share of 37 per cent for the Congress translated into a seat share of 25 per cent, while the BJP got 37 per cent of the votes and 69 per cent of the seats. This is even more true of Rajasthan, where the BJP got 81 per cent of the seats with 48 per cent of the votes, while the Congress got 10 per cent of the seats with 33 per cent of the votes. The first-past-the-post system that we follow in this country has this tendency: it gives disproportionately high seats to the leading party and disproportionately low seats to the lagging party.

Both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh show the BJP gaining at the expense of the Congress — a story that the media have played up incessantly. But in Delhi, both lost ground; the vote share of the BJP fell 3 per cent, while that of the Congress fell 15 per cent. The share of minor parties fell 13 per cent. All these votes went to the newcomer, Aam Aadmi Party. It is not surprising that AAP bit into Congress votes. They are ideologically indistinguishable; both are run-of-the-mill populist parties. But the AAP claims to be in favour of honesty and against corruption. Not that the Congress claims the opposite; but even if it had claimed to be the party of the honest, no one would have believed it. The AAP’s advantage was that it has never been in government and hence never faced the temptations of corruption. This advantage will erode with time; if the AAP becomes more like the Congress as time goes, its vote share will also go down. One way for it to stay honest would be to avoid getting into power as Kejriwal had promised to do this time. That would work as long as AAP did not get a majority; if it got one, staying out of power would be impossible. But as a revenue officer, Kejriwal must have seen a lot of corruption in his career. Maybe he has some clever ideas on how to keep his people honest in the face of temptation. So it would be good to try out the AAP in power.

But to get into power, it would have to win an election. Not just winning, but even fighting an election requires a lot of money — for travel, for feeding workers, for pandals, microphones, etc. So Kejriwal has first to work out a financing model for an honest party. American parties and the British Conservative Party rely on rich supporters; the British Labour Party depends on trade unions. There is no such obvious sugar daddy available for the AAP; Kejriwal had better go and find one if he wants to last in Indian politics. To my mind, the recent elections are just old hat — except for Kejriwal. His is an experiment to watch — and I fervently hope he turns out to be more intelligent than he looks, and more successful than he has hitherto been. I would prefer radical change, such as proportional representation for example; but short of that, he is the best thing that has happened to Indian politics for a long time.