The feel-bad factor

Predicting elections is a mug’s game. Even the best-designed opinion polls and exit polls can go badly wrong. Opinion polls that turn out to be correct often owe a lot to serendipity: errors for and against a party neatly cancel out, giving an illusion of great accuracy.

Some of my colleagues will make the most detailed predictions on a constituency-by-constituency basis. I will rest content with some broad generalisations. There is much talk of India shining, of the ruling BJP-led coalition benefiting from a feel-good factor among voters. India Today’s opinion poll has predicted that the ruling National Democratic Alliance will sweep back to power with an increased majority.

Well, I am never reluctant to stick my neck out, and risk having it chopped off. The evidence I see suggests that voters are feeling bad rather than good on the political front. Hence the NDA should lose rather than gain seats in the coming election.

What evidence do I see? Simply this: more than four-fifth of incumbent governments get voted out. I can think of no better evidence that voters do not feel good on the political front. Feel-good on the economic front does not automatically translate into feel-good on the political front.

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh has started talking of Gross National Contentment as opposed to GNP. That is a very pertinent distinction. But the regularity with which incumbents keep losing elections suggests that, no matter how rapidly GNP may be rising (8.4 per cent in the last recorded quarter), Gross National Contentment is stagnating or falling.

Actually, I had better qualify that. Even if contentment with the economy is improving, contentment with politicians and governments is not. The quality of governance has long been deteriorating. The Pay Commission award bankrupted all state governments, hitting the delivery of public services everywhere.

Corruption and high-handedness are worse than ever. The moribund state is less able than ever to protect honest citizens. In the Jessica Lal case almost all witnesses turned hostile because they did not trust the state to protect them against death threats. The only witness who did not turn hostile was an NRI: apparently witnesses have to live abroad to feel that they can safely tell the truth! In the Best Bakery case, the Supreme Court affirmed that the quality of justice had fallen to an unprecedented low.

Despite worsening governance, many sections of the economy are doing better, thanks to improved policies. A good monsoon has boosted GNP, forex reserves have crossed $100 billion, the rupee is strengthening against the dollar. Indian manufacturing and services are exhibiting a new confidence in taking on the world. Consumers are getting a wider range of goods than ever before at low prices and affordable instalments, thanks to the explosion in consumer finance.

Many groups, especially those benefiting from globalisation and consumer finance, feel better off economically. But they believe they are better off despite the government, not because of it. That is why they keep voting out incumbents.

The BJP won three major state elections last autumn, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. But in all three states the Congress was the incumbent. Despite good economic conditions, all three states voted against the incumbent. As I said in an earlier column, this surely suggests that in a general election, voters will oust the incumbent in New Delhi.

BJP, the incumbent in Himachal Pradesh, was soundly beaten in the state election. So, incumbents seems to lose, whether Congress or BJP, save in extraordinary circumstances. Earlier, the incumbent CPM was voted out in Kerala, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the National Conference in Kashmir .

There are exceptions to this rule. Narendra Modi won in extraordinary circumstances in Gujarat . The CPM in West Bengal has put on such an extraordinary performance that it has won five successive times. Chandrababu Naidu won re-election in Andhra Pradesh, Laloo Yadav in Bihar .

So, incumbency is not necessarily a death sentence. But it does mean the odds are strongly against you.

Remember that the BJP won re-election in 1999 in extraordinary circumstances. It was defeated in a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, yet was rescued by an unexpected Kargil war, which made Atal Behari Vajpayee a victorious hero. That surely represented a zenith. And surely the path from a zenith is downward.

I cannot in this short column go into the electoral alliances that greatly affect elections. I suspect the Congress will cobble together a greatly improved set of alliances this time.

But let me not get diverted from my main theme. This is, that we have a feel-bad factor on the political front, even if we have a feel-good factor on the economic side. For that reason, expect the BJP to lose seats in the coming election. Whether it loses enough seats to also lose power will be the key issue of interest.

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