Electoral mood is anti-incumbent

A story doing the rounds in New Delhi is that the Congress Party has commissioned a secret opinion poll for the coming state elections, which predicts that the BJP will be voted back to power in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, while the Congress will retain power in Delhi. This opinion poll suggests that incumbents will get re-elected everywhere, reversing voting trends in recent decades, when 75-80% of all incumbents have been voted out.

Predicting election results is a mug’s game: there are no reliable ways of measuring voting moods, and pollsters and journalists have repeatedly proved false prophets. A further complication this time is the possible impact of the global recession and Mumbai terrorist attack. Yet, after a brief recent tour of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, along with other media colleagues, let me stick my neck out and predict that anti-incumbency is indeed the current mood, and that the opinion poll supposedly commissioned by the Congress will prove false.

Why are three-quarters of incumbent governments voted out? Because governance is weak, and the state delivers a small fraction of what it promises. Only in exceptional circumstances do incumbents get re-elected.

Narendra Modi of the BJP was re-elected in Gujarat in 2007 because he provided high quality governance and public services. His share of the popular vote stayed virtually unchanged at almost 50%. For very different reasons, Tarun Gogoi of the Congress was re-elected in Assam in 2006. He lost almost 9 percentage points of the popular vote, an anti-incumbent trend that would normally have meant massive defeat. Yet he scraped through with just 31% of the popular vote, because the pposition vote was divided among several parties.

Neither of these special circumstances apply in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. In neither state is the Opposition vote split between several parties: the Congress Party is the clear alternative. In neither state has the BJP government provided the high-quality public services that Modi has in Gujarat. The BJP swept to power in 2003 the central Indian belt on the slogan of providing better bijli, sadak and pani (electricity, roads and water). Alas, it has failed to do so.

Householders in Bhopal complain that they get water only every other day, and people in Indore claim that sometimes they get water just once in three days. Electricity supply remains erratic and of low quality. The performance is roads is much better, but this is partly because of central programs such as the National Highways and the Prime Minister’s Village Roads Programme.

The National Rural Employment guarantee Act (NREGA) has provided substantial rural purchasing power to the needy, despite much corruption and diversion of funds. Villagers say that after the government raised the minimum wage paid to NREGA workers in Rajasthan, wages have risen in the open market too, benefiting labourers. However, most (though by no means all) villagers know the difference between central and state programmes, and are aware that NREGA and high-class rural roads go to the credit of New Delhi more than the state capital.

So, the voter mood is anti-incumbent. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP takes comfort in the fact that it was almost 11 percentage points ahead of Congress in 2003, so it hopes to stay on top even if it loses a substantial chunk of the popular vote. It is banking on the image of its Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan, who is seen as a relatively clean politician, in contrast to many of his highly corrupt Ministers. However, this does not look sufficient to overcome the general anti-incumbent mood.

In Rajasthan, the BJP won by a relatively narrow margin in 2003, and to that extent is more vulnerable than in Madhya Pradesh. The state has made considerable industrial progress in recent decades. But, as voting history has shown in state after state, industry does not automatically translate into votes.

What about the impact of the global recession, which started in the US and Europe and has now hit India? In Madhya Pradesh, it is a non-issue. Politicians of all stripes say that the recession has not affected employment or production, and that factories have not laid off large numbers of workers.

In Rajasthan, truck operators serving the Delhi-Mumbai route say that business has suddenly fallen by almost 30% in the last month, a sudden and sharp slowdown. The gems and textile industries of the state are affected too. Yet both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are mainly rural states, with relatively little exposure to the global economy. What little impact the global recession has will, however, deepen the anti-incumbent mood.

The BJP in its election campaign accuses the Congress of being incompetent in handling terrorism. The latest Mumbai terrorist attack makes the Congress look more incompetent than ever. But there have been terrorist incidents in BJP-ruled Rajasthan too. Politics in both states focuses overwhelmingly on local issues, often on narrow constituency issues. National issues matter much less.

In these circumstances, incumbent governments are likely to take a beating. Regardless of what secret opinion polls may say, the BJP should prepare for the worst in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

What do you think?