Endless poll talk

Sometimes one feels sympathy with the prime minister’s oft-stated ambition to reduce the frequency of elections in this country. As unconstitutional, unimplementable and illiberal an idea it may be, the notion of simultaneous elections would at least mean that we are not exposed twice a year to months of uninformed speculation, empty posturing, and doubtful opinion polls. It would also, hopefully, mean fewer Modi rallies — but since those are the only times when the prime minister looks like he is really enjoying himself, I suspect he is not as enthusiastic about simultaneous elections as he would have us believe. 

A few years ago, I remember how conversation entirely stopped about absolutely any other subject in the run-up to the Bihar Assembly election in 2015. Even for political junkies, it was boring. And it was boring because, most particularly, if most of those holding forth on the subject were honest, they would have prefaced their remarks with the notion that they had no clear idea how it would turn out, or even what the essential issues at hand were. We were treated to endless pieces about the horse race, written by those essentially unable to see the horses. Not that anyone was able to see the horses; polling is so doubtful in many Indian states that outcomes are genuinely uncertain, even landslides like Bihar. Or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, which was not supposed to be as much of a romp as it was. It is true that at this time in 2016 we were largely spared such discussion — but that was because elections were being held in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which tell little about the “real” story that everyone wants to talk about: Is the BJP invincible?

And that is, of course, the reason why it is impossible to avoid talking, at this point in time, about Karnataka. We are less than a week away from knowing the results of elections in that state, although the campaign looks like it has been going on forever. Even Modi’s rallies, late in the day though they began, seem to have been dominating headlines for remarkably long. Has the prime minister implied Rahul Gandhi is more comfortable in Italian? Has he chosen to speak in Hindi? Etc, etc. It can get tiresome. 

There are essentially two real reasons why the Karnataka result will actually be revealing in terms of that big question, whether Modi’s BJP is yet beatable. 

One is that a major axis of Indian politics going forward is going to be questions of federalism, and of the growing division between Hindi-speaking states and the others. This has been brought into the open by this election, in which the Congress chief minister, Siddaramaiah, has openly used Kannada sub-nationalism to counter the BJP’s narrative. That is what kept him in the game long after many had written him off a few years ago, when his government’s performance was not considered to be exceptional. Siddaramaiah has pushed the Kannada language, a Kannada flag, and so on, and subtly implied that the BJP’s chief campaigners are “outsiders”. You might argue that the prime minister of India is not an outsider anywhere — but, on the other hand, the BJP seems to have made Siddaramaiah’s argument easy by sending people like UP Chief Minister Adityanath to lecture Kannadigas on governance, which would be a bit of an insult for most Indian states. How effective is this strategy? We will learn soon. 

The other reason that the Karnataka result will be interesting is that it will suggest whether or not the Congress’ revival in terms of narrative and energy is sustainable and effective. There’s no question that, over the past year, the Congress’ spin-masters and social media managers have gotten their act together and are no longer so distant a second to the BJP. Modi’s party does not retain a monopoly over snappy videos, WhatsApp-able memes, and so on, though it does retain its easy lead in terms of fake news. Yet even more than the resurgence of a Congress narrative, it is the party’s energy — and especially Rahul Gandhi’s involvement — that appears to have changed over time. Starting with last year’s Gujarat assembly elections, Gandhi seems to have committed more time and effort to electioneering than he has previously. The question is whether this burst of effort can survive a demoralising defeat in yet another large state where they were in with a chance. It is no longer the “only large state” that Congress holds — there is, after all, Punjab — and yet a loss in Karnataka after so much has been invested there would be difficult to manage for the Congress in the run-up to the general elections next year. At the very least they need another “moral victory”, one that would keep the cadre and the leadership pushing through to what appears to be a done-and-dusted victory in Rajasthan later this year. 

It can be tiring, yes, but India is an election junkie’s dream. There’s always something on, or approaching. If only we had real and better opinion polls, I would be a lot happier. 
Email: m.s.sharma@gmail.com Twitter: @mihirssharma

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