Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: Single-minded voters and others

The common thread in the election narrative in UP, Punjab and Goa was ‘change vs continuity’. By and large, the BJP was the protagonist of continuity, the Congress (and AAP in Punjab) the protagonist of change. The outcome: continuity trumped over change, except in Punjab. The undisputed winner was the BJP.

Once upon a time, the right to rule over people was a divine right. That notion has been discarded in most countries of the world. Other systems of government have replaced monarchy. Democracy is one such system. It is a human invention that allows citizens of a State to change their rulers through a vote. Winston Churchill once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” India chose democracy despite all its faults. Among different democratic systems, we chose the ‘first past the post system’ despite its sometimes bizarre outcomes.

Punjab, UP and Goa
We have just witnessed the results of elections in five states that are as different as the five fingers of a hand. I followed the course of the elections in three of the five states and shall therefore restrict my observations to those states.

Elections were held in U.P., the most populous state with an Assembly of 403 legislators; in Punjab, a middle-size (117 seats) but a turbulent border state; and in Goa, the smallest state, with only 40 legislators. The common thread in the election narrative in the three states was ‘change vs continuity’. By and large, the BJP was the protagonist of continuity, the Congress (and AAP in Punjab) the protagonist of change. The outcome: continuity trumped over change, except in Punjab. The undisputed winner was the BJP.

In Goa, there was a desire for change. Two days before the counting, as I settled down in my seat on a flight, a lady took her seat next to me and said, very audibly, “Just win, just win.” There was a strong undercurrent in Goa that spelt c-h-a-n-g-e. When the votes were counted, it became clear that 66 per cent of the voters had actually voted for change, but the outcome spelt c-o-n-t-i-n-u-i-t-y!

Change, but no change
Within an hour of the declaration of results in all 40 constituencies of Goa, the usual residents and holidayers in beachwear were strolling on the Miramar and swarms of people were taking pictures of themselves on the steps of the Church of Mary Immaculate Conception. The undercurrent of change had seemingly disappeared altogether, leaving one wondering ‘What was the commotion of the elections about?’. The only bunch of bewildered people were the candidates (among them eight belonging to the Congress and expected to win) who had campaigned for change and had lost by small margins ranging from 169 to 1,647 votes. Of the eight, six lost to BJP candidates, and the tables were turned.

The Congress had thrown everything it had into the elections in the three states. In Punjab, it changed its chief minister, challenged the entrenched power structure by boldly putting a Dalit in the chair, and sought continuity with change. AAP was the principal challenger, arguing for a total change. AAP trounced every other party, including the BJP, and won 92 out of 117 seats. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress pitched its flag in 400 constituencies (a first in many years), fielded women in 40 per cent of the constituencies (a first for any party in any election) and coined a slogan that went viral and attracted thousands of women, mostly the young: ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon. It won two seats and 2.68 per cent of the votes. In Goa, the Congress denied re-admission or tickets to defectors, fielded young, educated, clean, no-baggage candidates, presented a comprehensive manifesto that addressed all the issues, campaigned energetically and topped the social media engagements. The only thing it did not do was to pay money for votes. All but two of the young, educated, clean, no-baggage candidates lost. The allegedly most corrupt ministers of the outgoing government and at least eight known defectors were re-elected. The two new entrants, AAP and TMC, took 6.77 per cent and 5.21 per cent of the vote and 2 and 0 seats respectively, and cooked the Congress goose.

Lost the Plot
Reading the results, it seems to me that the No-changers had it easy, they had to press one button, and they did so single-mindedly in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa. The Pro-changers were spoilt for choice and pressed different buttons! It also seems to me that the people are against drug trafficking, blasphemy and unkept promises on jobs (as in Punjab); that people are content to be poor, to see their children go out of the state in search of jobs (one in sixteen of the population migrates out of the state), and to suffer miserable educational and healthcare facilities (as in UP); and that people who were genuinely concerned about issues like education, employment, economy, environment and the ethos of the state thought they had voted for change but are now horrified to find that they have the same government and no change at all (as in Goa).

I believe that in all the five states, even as the core Hindutva vote base is growing, the majority of voters desired a change of government. The majority may have voted for change but they did not vote with a single mind or for a single party, except in Punjab. In Goa, certainly, the Pro-changers divided their votes among three-four parties and lost the plot. I hope that this essay does not read like a lament about democracy.

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