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Verdict 2018, a democratic fable

As the BJP’s seal of inevitability is cracked, the Congress must diversify its narrative

Election results have an inevitability, a closure once they are announced. The very numbers add to a sense of objectivity and abstraction. The results sound like a pool table score, with the Congress having retained the edge in Rajasthan, and survived a cliffhanger in Madhya Pradesh which makes outgoing Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan lose face regardless of the photo finish. The convincing landslides came in Chhattisgarh (the Congress), Telangana (Telangana Rashtra Samithi) and Mizoram (Mizo National Front).

As it played out

Yet reading about a result and watching it over TV gave you two separate understandings of it.

One of my friends is a philosopher of ordinary life. He spends his time pondering over ordinary things such as stones, clocks, timetables, calendars and even the ritual of elections. I sat next to him as he was watching the TV reports meticulously detailing results. My friend looked disturbed and dubbed such detail ‘misguided ethnography’. He claimed an election is an act of storytelling disfigured by results. The instrumental nature of results, who fought whom and who won, is one kind of drama, overt and immediately satisfying. There is little reflection about an election as a process or as a combination of deeper forces shaping critical futures.

A midterm election, in the sense of Assembly polls with the parliamentary action not far, can be described as India muttering to itself. A voter is playing out choices and possibilities in his head. He is thinking aloud, trying to aggregate new options. This same process of thinking and rethinking happens at three levels. A vote is a piece of symbolic currency, and the Congress is using this election to encourage people to bet on it in the future. This election is a wager on 2019 and the Congress is playing out scenarios to convince India that it is a good bet for other Opposition parties. A whole spate of alliances is at stake and temporary options, such as between the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress, are being played out. So the first wager of this election is the future of the Congress as an aggregator of Opposition votes. The Opposition then will decide whether it joins the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bandwagon, or creates a third front as spoilsport.

There is a second scenario being played out simultaneously. The exit polls, though a simulation of the election, have acquired a reality of their own. As the TV announces results and voters play commentator, every living room becomes a debating club where India plays at psephology. Exit polls become important as acts of civic discussion where the voter as voyeur and commentator plays out options and strategies. This drawing room democracy has become a very important part of the election strategy. It is a playing out of folk game theory pitting each TV channel against the other. Each TV channel enacts a voting strategy, mirroring the politics of choices, which the viewer enjoys more than the literal election. The voter is not merely voting for a party but betting on which channel is the best strategist. As a learning opera, exit polls, for all their drawbacks of method and standardisation, are what I call drawing room games of democracies.

There is, third, the more literal context, what the media loves to call the semifinals, the last prelude before the national elections. Here the BJP is central and is seen to be clearing up its act, clarifying doubts as it begins what it sees as its march to victory.

Once we see elections as the scenarios of three narratives, reading an election involves styles and controversies. One thing one senses is the patriarchal nature of elections, where the dole and the development programme become the market end of the new electoral game. It is not a promise of ideology but materiality that moves the electorate. The words ‘Vikas’ and ‘Yojana’ signal Father Christmas, where the voter realises the little bonanzas waiting for him. Whether it is outgoing Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje, respectively, or the re-elected and the victorious K. Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana, there is a millennial promise of goodies. In this context Ms. Raje’s rule sounds like Father Christmas gone wrong. Many interest groups turn elections into an accounting system where each caste literally asks, ‘what is in it for me?’ There is a sense that the vote is merely convertible currency to be cashed in the ATM counters of post-election time.

State of the States

One thing is clear. Regional satraps may not continue to dominate their fortresses. This is as true of Mr. Chouhan as for Raman Singh, who had been Chhattisgarh Chief Minister since 2003. They seemed content within their fortress of votes, yet M.P. and Chhattisgarh ran both aground. Rajasthan provided a cliffhanger where the Congress obtained the edge. The disappointment with Ms. Raje lay within and beyond the party. As a result, one is not clear whether Ms. Raje’s result was a self-inflicted injury of internal factionalism or a consequence of the Congress strategy. Certainly, Ms. Raje’s hesitancy made the Congress look proactive and confidently claim that this was one piece of political turf that the Congress would regain. Congress politicians, from Ashok Gehlot to Sachin Pilot, were literally parroting and exploiting the gossip on the ground.

Each State became a self-contained cocoon with the shadow of the Ram mandir plan waiting to unfold before 2019. It is clear that it was part of a national strategy not to be played out as regional politics. The Ram mandir demand might get more hysterical as the Congress appears livelier than it was thought to be. In a way this is the biggest takeaway of this election. The seal of inevitability that marked the BJP does not look convincing and the Congress, at least at the State level, looks more competent and embedded. Also, the Opposition suddenly realises it has a livelier script available and faces the prospect of Opposition unity affecting the fate of future politics.

The second thing that is clear is that State-level politics has a different dynamic and logic than national-level agendas. The Chief Minister is central and national leaders take a temporary back seat. What haunts many of them is the dullness of the polity and the spectre of incumbency. While there is a negativity about their politics, there is a passivity about the Congress, which the result should catalyse. The State and the ground are more effervescent than the national level. The results should vitaminise the leadership, allowing it to increase the diversity of proactive strategies for the future.

Photo finish alert

The danger of a photo finish is clear. Small margins of victory create the grey economy of politics, where brokers become critical. The voter has to ensure this does not happen. The Opposition too has to weld strategies of consolidation and reciprocity to see that votes do not get wasted. The result is an agenda for the future.

It asks democratic India to see elections as a rule game with protean possibilities. It is clear that majoritarianism and the seal of invincibility dull the electoral game. This much Indian democracy has learnt about itself.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 12:21:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/verdict-2018-a-democratic-fable/article25727931.ece

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