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Question of polls: Do people vote against the PM, their MP or the party?

Tomorrow, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives his annual speech from Red Fort, millions will be wondering if he will be doing it next year also. Six months ago, it seemed a certainty. But now a very faint question mark is becoming visible in the electoral sky.

 

This leads me to something I have been wondering about for 22 years now. What triggered the question then was that I rang a well-known Member of Parliament to ask him to write a column for this newspaper.

 

He had just lost his seat and broke into a tirade about ungrateful voters. “I did so much for them, yet the wretches let me down,” he kept repeating.

 

Ever since then, whenever a government is defeated, I wonder whether people vote against the prime minister or their MP or their party. Can Mr Modi’s personal appeal offset the mistakes of the BJP and its MPs?

 

In other words, will the negative vote in 2019, whatever its number, be against Mr Modi or the sitting MP or the party?

 

Party, PM or MP?

 

In some cases, the answer is crystal clear: people vote against the prime minister. Thus, in 1977 they voted against Indira Gandhi because of the Emergency and in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi because the charge of corruption against him stuck.

 

But these are exceptional instances which have happened only twice so far. In contrast, the P V Narasimha Rao government was voted out in 1996 and the Vajpayee government in 2004. Neither had riled voters as much as Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had. On the contrary, both had done well by the voter. Yet they lost.

 

We can see the same phenomenon at the level of the states also: CMs who deliver don’t always win. The four southern states are a case in point.

 

2019’s ticket question

 

So what will happen to the negative vote in 2019? Despite some errors of judgement, Mr Modi is still very popular. So it is reasonable to expect that the negative vote will be directed either towards the party or the MP. This is because sometimes it is the MP who annoys voters and sometimes it is the party.

 

Take the cow slaughter ban as an example. This is a party policy which can be softened by an MP – and indeed it has been in many cases. Or it can be applied ruthlessly by him or her, as has also happened, mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

 

In the latter case, the answer is clear: people will vote against both party and MP. But the problem arises when the party is seen as being bad and the MP is seen as good.

 

It is perhaps in recognition of the ‘bad’ MP problem that there are rumours in Delhi that perhaps as many as 150 BJP MPs might be replaced. They are costing the party dear and Mr Modi’s popularity may not be enough to offset the popular disenchantment with them.

 

What is not clear, however, is the criterion for being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ MP. Will the hardliners be classified as good or the softer ones? This might be where the influence of the RSS becomes visible and differences of opinion arise between it and the BJP.

 

This also perhaps explains the rise in violence in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which will soon hold Assembly elections. The sitting MLAs are trying to attract the attention of the powers-that-be.

 

The results, which will reveal public preferences, will be a guide to what sort of candidates will get tickets in 2019 – the hard Hindutva types or the soft ones.

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