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Gujarat: The election that wasn't

December 17, 2012 17:37 IST

A democratic set-up is a necessary instrument to choose rulers, but it cannot always provide a roadmap to a good society. That needs a moral compass, which is prominent by its absence in the current campaign, says Dr Shreekant Sambrani.

The results of the Gujarat polls are still a couple of days away, but one outcome can be safely predicted. The winner will not be the Bharatiya Janata Party, although it would form the next government in all likelihood. No, this is not a typo, nor have I taken leave of my senses.

The state assembly election is in effect a referendum about its chief minister of the last decade, Mr Narendra Modi, which he is most likely to win. The usual disclaimer to such statements is 'barring unforeseen events,' but in this fortnight of elections, no such occurrences seem to be looming on the horizon.

The claim that this is a referendum is supported on two extremely reliable sources. The first is Mr Modi himself. He said in a meeting in Veraval on December 1 that this contest is between the Congress and him, not the BJP. Nobody has since challenged this.

The other source is where I derive many insights from, the local vegetable market. That same day, I heard many people say that all credit for what they obviously thought as Gujarat's currently enviable position belonged solely to Mr Modi. Some said they were not keen to participate in the election. They would, however, not only vote for Mr Modi, but try to persuade others to do so as well.

To be sure, predicting election results in a democracy is an exercise fraught with immeasurable peril. The Chicago Daily Tribune famously splashed on its front page in November 1948 the victory of the Republican Thomas Dewey in the American presidential election, to its everlasting chagrin and immense delight of President Harry Truman who actually won.

Closer home and to our times, most observers had forecast a victory for the National Democratic Alliance in 2004. So it is possible that two days from now, this columnist will have egg on his face, though not highly probable. In such an event, he will be in the august company of almost all pollsters and commentators.

Some major departures from the recent electoral history of the state deserve mention. This writer was in a very tiny minority of non-partisan commentators to predict a decisive victory for the BJP in 2002 and 2007.

Most observers believed that in the aftermath of the carnage in 2002 and the vicious campaign in 2007, the state ruling party would face a tough time at the hustings and could possibly eke out only a narrow win.

Mr Modi led his party to win 126 and 117 seats in a House of 182 in 2002 and 2007 respectively.

The earlier convincing victory of the incumbent BJP government in 2007 caught only the media commentators by surprise, but the electorate had long foretold it. While analysing it, I had listed the general feeling of well-being on all economic and infrastructure indicators, an image of effective governance prevailing not only in the state, but among the knowledgeable outsiders as well and fading memories of the 2002 carnage as factors responsible for this performance.

In those circumstances, 'a ratcheting up (down?) of the campaign was waiting to happen and it did with the maut ke saudagar epithet of the Congress president... (T)his was (not) the kiss of death for the Congress campaign, because it was already moribund, but it gave Mr Modi the opportunity to up the ante, which he grabbed gleefully' ('Can we learn anything from Gujarat 2007?' Business Standard, December 26, 2007).

In the five years since, these very causes have given the Gujarati voter even more comfort. The Congress leadership now dare not use strong rhetoric lest it backfire even worse this time. It has taken all too feebly to challenging the state's claims to various desirable developments through a high-profile print, electronic and Web blitz.

The vocal media pundits have contributed, too, with exercises that appear all too laboured, to show that things are not all that rosy in Gujarat and, at any rate, some other states have done better or just as well.

The electorate is obviously not buying much of any of these.

The voters most likely see no reason to make a fresh choice. This year's Nobel Laureates in economics, Lloyd Shapiro and Alvin Roth, explain why in their elegant mating and team-formation theories. Put simply, they say that a pairing is stable if neither partner has an incentive to seek alternative alliances.

The average Gujaratis believes that they have never had it so good as in the last 10 years or so. Despite some critics making a valid claim that the actual situation of the state is not as impressive as the much-publicised claims, there is no gainsaying that Gujarat has been among the frontline states on most indicators of development.

The vigorous growth of the state in the first decade of this century prompted economist Arvind Subramaniam to call it the China among Indian states. That is not the egalitarian Scandinavia or plush Switzerland, but it is not unimpressive either.

Economist Bibek Debroy in a recent book compares various dimensions of the Gujarat model with the rest of the country. He concludes that even as the positive legacy of previous governments and the Gujarati entrepreneurship are acknowledged to be contributory factors, denying the role the present political leadership has played in the various achievements would 'violate the facts and be dishonest.' Neither of the distinguished scholars can be termed as Modi apologists or BJP partisans.

The aam aadmi and aurat in Gujarat do not need such disquisitions to be convinced. The prosperity of the state is evident even in these days of stubborn downturn of the economy. Power is available almost everywhere practically without interruption.

While the Narmada waters do not yet reach the remotest corners of the state, Gujarat has not suffered badly this year despite a substantial shortfall of rain. Roads are clearly better in the state than elsewhere.

Mr Modi claims the credit personally for all this and most people are more than willing to let him have it.

Thus, there are no new issues or battles to fight this time around. This inevitability has reduced the 2012 election to a one-issue contest: Mr Modi himself.

The parties have gone through the rituals of manifestoes and rallies and speeches, but that does not alter the fact that this is essentially a referendum masking as an election when people have already made up their mind for or against.

In effect, Gujarat is being asked whether it approves of Mr Modi, not necessarily his politics or programmes, but the person and his leadership.

The mood in Gujarat now is that the BJP is the natural party of governance and the Congress, which ruled the state for most of the first three decades (and once boasted a 145-seat majority in the state assembly), is a pale shadow of itself and on the path of self-destruction.

The BJP has been in power since 1995 except for one year and the younger voters can only think of Congress rule as a myth from the past.

The fly in the ointment with such 'beauty contests' is that they can backfire. Charles de Gaulle subjected himself to a referendum in 1969 after the 1968 student uprising, only to have to face the ignominy of retiring to his seaside estate.

Closer home, the post-Emergency 1977 election turned a presumed victory for Mrs Indira Gandhi into a nightmare of retreat, albeit temporary.

In both these cases, loud rumblings of dissent were heard well before the ballot, so the outcome was not a surprise for anyone except the incumbents. That does not seem to be happening now.

A referendum is truly won only when an absolute majority accords the approval. Will Mr Modi cross that Rubicon? The various pre-election polls show stratospheric approval ratings for him, but only one or two show the vote share to cross the 50 per cent mark. A somewhat smaller vote share would also ensure a handsome majority in our first-past-the-post electoral system.

The BJP had 120 +/- seats in a House of 182 with just under 49 per cent of the vote in both 2002 and 2007. The only time Gujarat gave a bigger mandate was in 1985, when the Congress under Mr Madhavsinh Solanki took 55 per cent of the vote and 149 seats. No wonder Mr Modi now has set his eyes on 150!

The likely outcome of the Gujarat assembly elections, coupled with the fact that Mr Modi himself no longer demonises any community and seems to enjoy grudging and gradual acceptance of some Muslims, will doubtless lead to further exhortations that we must now put the events of 2002 behind us and move on.

Doing so, however, would amount to treating an electoral endorsement of a leader or a model of development as the criterion of the social good.

A democratic set-up is a necessary instrument to choose rulers, but it cannot always provide a roadmap to a good society. That needs a moral compass, which is prominent by its absence in the current campaign.

Dr Shreekant Sambrani taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand.

Shreekant Sambrani