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No leader big enough to drive choices

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With States emerging as the principal battleground, political charisma has shifted to the local level, says Yogendra Yadav

In an image driven world, this Lok Sabha election stands out in that it is not dominated by any personality. It is not merely the absence of a transformative figure such as U.S. President Barack Obama — we don’t even have the equivalent of a Tony Blair, Mahathir Mohamad, Hugo Chavez or Sheikh Hasina around whom votes crystallise. To draw on our own history, there is no Indira Gandhi, no Rajiv Gandhi, no V. P. Singh or Atal Behari Vajpayee. The only election that parallels this one was in 1996. We have leaders, but no one who drives popular choices at the national level. A look at the popularity chart of the our leaders over the last decade reveals that the single exception to this was Atal Behari Vajpayee, who emerged in 1988 as a national leader.

Same question

The figures are drawn from various surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The CSDS surveys have always asked the same open-ended question (“Who would you like to be the Prime Minister of the country?”) to a representative national sample of respondents without offering any choices. About one-sixth of the respondents offered no preference.

The latest such survey, the CNN-IBN poll, was carried out by the CSDS in mid-January this year. It showed that no single leader enjoyed even 25 per cent support of the citizens for the Prime Minister’s position. Sonia Gandhi leads the pack with 20 per cent, followed by Manmohan Singh at 12 per cent and Lal Krishna Advani at 10 per cent. Despite his retirement, nine per cent of electors chose Mr. Vajpayee.

Other leaders

Other leaders who secured the support of at least one per cent or more were: Rahul Gandhi (6.2), Mayawati (5.4), Mulayam Singh (3.4), Narendra Modi (2.6), Lalu Prasad (1.9), Nitish Kumar (1.5), Jayalalithaa (1.3) and Sharad Pawar (1.2).

If asked directly to choose the ‘best leader’ for the country from among Ms. Gandhi, Mr. Advani, Ms. Mayawati and Prakash Karat, 40 per cent prefer Ms. Gandhi, followed by Mr. Advani at 23 per cent, Ms. Mayawati at seven per cent and Mr. Karat at three per cent.

When asked to compare certain attributes of these leaders, Ms. Gandhi was rated highest for being a ‘strong leader’ while Dr. Manmohan Singh came up tops for honesty.

These findings would disappoint Mr. Advani, who leads a campaign that promises a “strong leader and a decisive government.” After remaining in Mr. Vajpayee’s shadow for long — perhaps far too long — his ratings have started picking up over the last year. Many NDA supporters had still not heard about Mr. Vajpayee’s retirement and as awareness of this spreads, we can expect Mr. Advani’s ratings to pick up.

He does not face a challenge from anyone from within his party including Mr. Modi, whose national rating stands at less than three per cent.

Yet, the hard fact remains that Mr. Advani has been able to capture only a third of the space vacated by Mr. Vajpayee, whose popularity rating was 38 per cent at the end of the 2004 elections. He was vastly more popular than his own party and stood a little higher than the alliance vote share of the NDA.

That is what eludes Mr. Advani. In an election in which he needs to bring in fresh support, Mr. Advani will at best be aiming to win over his own party’s voters and struggling to gain credibility with those who vote for the BJP’s allies.

Most popular

After Ms. Gandhi turned down the prime ministership, her ‘foreign origin’ ceased to be an issue and she emerged as the most popular political leader in the country. Together, she and the Prime Minister have captured a good deal of the space vacated by Mr. Vajpayee.

Yet her popularity is yet to transcend party support: 46 per cent of Congress voters named her as their choice for Prime Minister, but only 20 per cent of those who voted for the Congress’ allies and a mere seven per cent of others listed her as their choice. One of the reasons for Ms. Gandhi’s apparent decline is that some of her popularity is getting transferred to Rahul Gandhi. The CSDS survey in January 2009 found that 6.2 per cent named him as their choice for Prime Minister.

When asked directly about his suitability for the Prime Minister’s position, about a quarter thought he was both competent and ready, another quarter thought he was competent but not yet ready, while one-eighth thought he was not suitable at all. All in all, this election is still a continuation of his apprenticeship. He is not a vote getter for the Congress, not as yet.

Dr. Manmohan Singh is not unpopular and enjoys a reputation for honesty. But he is not so popular as to threaten the leader of his party and thus his own position. People seem aware that he is not the real decision maker, and don’t seem to mind the unusual division of labour with the Prime Minister as the head of the government and Ms. Gandhi as the real political executive.

Ms. Mayawati has also made a mark on the national scene and her projection as a possible future Prime Ministerial is likely to help push her ratings.

Significantly, nearly half of those who mentioned her name were non-Dalits. She is seen to be a strong leader, but the taint of corruption is something that should worry a long-term player like her.

The absence of a towering personality in this election is partly due to the changing nature of the electoral game.

Shift to States

With States emerging as the principal battleground, the role of personal charisma has shifted to the State level. As the possibility of a national wave recedes, so does the possibility of one leader sweeping elections across the country.

This may have taken some colour out of elections. But this is not bad news for democracy.

The rising global phenomenon of presentable, smartly dressed and thoroughly tutored speech-making machines passing off as political leaders is a curse on modern democracy. If there is something in our polity that resists the image manipulation of spin doctors and does not allow truly charismatic leaders a free run, it may be a blessing in disguise.

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