THE JURY IS STILL OUT
By any reckoning, Mr Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Mr Raman Singh or Ms Vasundhara Raje are not underachievers as Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan respectively. Mr Chouhan and Mr Singh have completed three terms in office and can boast of several achievements. Compared to Ms Raje, they have faced lesser dissent and got their party’s full backing for their governance record. Yet, they are not sure of a handsome voter endorsement.
In contrast, Mr K. Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana state looks a lot more sure of returning to power for a second term though his performance is a mixed bag.
That raises several questions. Why are all these states going down to the wire? Is it because the leaders in their respective states have built a mass base and delivered on the ground?
Do voters punish underperformance? Do they reward good performers? The answer is not necessarily a big yes or no.
Several factors including the desire for change coupled with fatigue with the present, abuse of power by the minions under a powerful leader could alter voter preference. Adding to this, nonperformance of a legislator or the lure of promised doles and waivers could tilt the balance.
Also, if nothing is permanent in political life, so are the charisma of top- notch leader and the managerial skills of a party’s campaign organisers.
It is in these circumstances that one tends to treat the exit polls more seriously than they should be — before the actual results are declared. The “exit polls” for five states have predicted a worrying outcome for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
An aggregate of these exit polls ( voters stated preference after casting their ballot) shows the BJP’s winning streak is set to end in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, both heading for hung verdict.
The Congress is tipped to win a clear majority in Rajasthan. The party is likely to lose Mizoram where it has been in power for a decade.
In Telangana state, the exit polls show Mr Chandrashekar Rao’s gamble of dissolving the State Assembly eight months ahead of its life giving him an advantage.
But it is the churning in the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan that should make the ruling dispensation at the Centre sit up and wonder.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have pulled the BJP chestnut out of the fire many times. But it is not granted that he can do so every time by fiery campaigns. The RSS cadres may have won some elections for the BJP, but they are no guarantee every time.
On the other hand, the Rahul Gandhi- led Congress may resemble an organisation that is still in the works. The Gandhi family scion may not seem to be rated as a serious contender. Yet, a voter gripped by thirst for a change can be the saviour, helping in the transformation — from a laggard under- performer to being a serious player.
Indeed, the powerful and not- so powerful politicians continue to be reminded that the voter remains the king and cannot be easily manipulated as he matures along with our democracy.
Neither Mr Chouhan nor his detractors in his party would deny that he sweated out the most for this year’s election.
Once he was seen as the leader who could rise to the top and even challenge Mr Modi. Just before Mr Modi got into the role of being BJP’s campaign face in 2013, senior leader L. K. Advani had almost projected Mr Chouhan as one of his favourite picks. Even to this day, Mr Chouhan is the BJP’s mass leader who has understood the farmers because he is one of them.
Yet the diminishing returns of his long stay in office ( 13 years) is palpable. The BJP has not readied a second line in MP just as it did not do in Gujarat where the post- Modi era has seen several convulsions within the party.
Mr Chouhan considers as his proud legacy the most successful schemes for women — the Ladli Laxmi Yojana, distribution of cycles to girls, and the Kanya Vivah scheme, and the programmes that improved basic infrastructure like electricity, roads and water supply.
But the Congress’ promise of a huge loan waiver threw a huge spanner in the BJP game- plan. After all, Mr Chouhan’s woes are said to have begun after a farmers’ protest in Mandsaur in June 2017, demanding higher crop prices and debt relief. The Modi government’s demonetisation and small traders’ tryst with the Goods and Services Tax ( GST) did not actually help matters.
For first time in 15 years, Mr Raman Singh found his foe- turned- friend- turnedfoe Ajit Jogi throwing a serious challenge following his alliance with BSP leader Mayawati. By Mr Singh’s own candid admission, it is not easy for him and the BJP.
Unlike his colleagues, Mr Singh refused to treat Mr Jogi’s threat to play kingmaker lightly. Mr Jogi did not contest the elections himself, preferring to campaign for his third front. Earlier, he had announced that he would contest against Mr Singh in the latter’s home constituency of Rajnandgaon but backed out.
The pattern of vote share in Chhattisgarh leaves room for all possibilities, Mr Singh argued. In the 2013 polls, the margin of votes between the BJP and the Congress was less than one per cent.
While the BJP got 41.04 per cent of the total vote, the Congress polled 40.29 per cent. The Congress could secure only 39 Assembly seats out of 90. The BJP got 49 seats and the BSP and independent one each.
Given this past, Mr Jogi thinks his front can take away the votes of the BJP as well as the Congress for a decent number of seats — for a key role in the post- poll set- up. Backed by ground reports, the Congress realised early that Mr Singh's magic as ‘ Chawal Baba’ ( the miracle maker who ensured rice to the poor under a successful Public Distribution System) was not a permanent entity.
As for Ms Raje, she has always run the government on her terms. She had got a mandate in 2013 that even BJP stalwart Bhairon Singh Shekhawat could not achieve. As a powerful leader in the maledominated Rajasthan, Ms Raje emerged as the single biggest factor for the BJP in victories and defeats. But she has remained a poor learner.
Notwithstanding her defeat in 2008 for being seen as arrogant and inaccessible, Ms Raje remained immune to change as her indispensability remained in tact. She believed in giving her best and did not think that she needed to improve intra- personal skills. Consequently, all through the last five years, Ms Raje earned more enemies within her fold. She had many partymen wishing that she was replaced by a friendlier face. It was these leaders who refused to speak about her government’s good work and stumped the BJP’s campaign.
Ms Raje showed no regret or remorse for things going awfully difficult for the BJP.
Finally, when the damage was assessed, Mr Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah did what could be done to salvage the situation and energise the rank and file.
On the other hand, a fresh- looking Congress has found it easy to shore up its image by deputing young Sachin Pilot at first, and later the veteran Ashok Gehlot to be the face though he was not formally declared as the Chief Minister candidate. Of course, the conflicting aspirations of both the leaders and many aspirants could not have added to the Congress’ winnability in some seats.
It is against this backdrop, that one waits the results on December 11.
( The writer is a veteran journalist)